Denis Matsuev, Riccardo Chailly / Filarmonica della Scala
Tchaikovsky / Mussorgsky/Ravel

KKL, Lucerne, 2019-04-11

4-star rating

2019-04-27 — Original posting

Ein russisches “Schlachtross” der Konzertliteratur in Matsuevs kompetenten Händen, und Russisches durch Ravels Brille — Zusammenfassung

Mit Denis Matsuev spielte ein Experte des russischen Repertoires Tschaikowskys b-moll Konzert—technisch souverän: ein Meister seines Fachs. Beinahe zu leicht ging ihm das Werk von der Hand. Ob es denn als Zugabe wieder die Méditation des gleichen Komponisten sein musste? Gewiss, eines der schönsten Werke des russischen Solo-Repertoires, aber da gibt es doch noch anderes?

Nicht durchwegs so überzeugend gelang Riccardo Chailly und der Filarmonica della Scala nach der Pause Ravels Instrumentierung von Mussorgskys “Bilder einer Ausstellung”. Rossinis Ouvertüre zu “Semiramide” als Zugabe ließ beinahe die vorangegangenen Werke vergessen.

Table of Contents


My wife and I decided to attend one concert in this year’s Lucerne Easter Festival, at the Lucerne Culture and Congress Centre (KKL)—both because of the artists, as well as for the repertoire.

The Artists

The conductor, Riccardo Chailly (*1953), wasn’t new to me: I have attended two of his concerts in Lucerne last year—see also my posts on the earlier concert on 2018-08-24, and the second one on the following day, on 2018-08-25 (both in the KKL).

This time, however, he wasn’t conducting the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, for which he is chief conductor since 2016 (and this tenure has been extended to 2023). Rather, Chailly was conducting the Filarmonica della Scala, an orchestra that so far I have not heard in concert. Since 2017, Chailly is music director for this orchestra. Originally, the Filarmonica della Scala was set up by Claudio Abbado (1933 – 2014), with the goal to expand the musical offering by La Scala di Milano into the symphonic repertoire.

Then, there was the soloist in this concert: the Russian pianist Denis Leonidovich Matsuev (*1975). To me, he is a “known entity”: I had heard him in concert twice prior to this concert. See also my posts on a concert on 2018-05-31 (KKL, Lucerne), and on an earlier solo recital in Zurich, on 2015-11-27.


LUCERNE FESTIVAL 2019. Press Photo, 2019-04-11

Setting, etc.

The White Hall in the KKL was sold out for this concert. My wife and I booked seats 7 and 8 in the fourth (top) left-hand side gallery. These had the advantage of being affordable. Plus, there is plenty of legroom, as the seats are all oriented towards the stage, not towards the balustrade. And the sight onto the orchestra (and the pianist’s hands) is excellent (except for the musicians at the very left edge of the stage).

We have had such seats with piano recitals and found them acoustically perfectly adequate. This concert (just to anticipate a part of our personal outcome of the event), however, was not a pure piano recital. The main difference was that our position likely had an effect on how we perceived the balance between piano and orchestra in the first part of the concert. In the second half of the concert, these seats offered extra spatial clarity and resolution (likely more than on the central balconies), but otherwise should not have distorted the soundscape.

Here are two glimpses down into the hall prior to the start of the concert (leaning over the balustrade is not for the faint-hearted!):

Concert & Review

Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No.1 in B♭ minor, op.23

The popular Piano Concerto No.1 in B♭ minor, op.23 by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893) features the following three movements:

  1. Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso — Allegro con spirito
  2. Andantino semplice — Prestissimo (Allegro vivace assai) — Tempo I
  3. Allegro con fuoco

I have given some additional information on this composition in an earlier concert review from 2017-01-27, and I have also reviewed performances of this composition from a concert performance on 2017-04-20 and yet another one on 2017-05-07.

LUCERNE FESTIVAL 2019. Press Photo, 2019-04-11

The Performance

I. Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso —

Already the orchestral ff quaver beats in the initial horn fanfare sounded remarkably mellow—relatively speaking (compared to other performances). Even more so, the crotchets in bars 4 and 5 sounded broad, almost legato. It felt as if Chailly did not want the orchestra to dominate over the piano.

And indeed: in the subsequent bars with the arpeggiated chord sequences in the solo (the accompaniment to the theme in the orchestra), Denis Matsuev gradually seemed to assume the lead (or was this just the initial, mutual tempo adjustment?). While so far, these were merely nuances, from when the piano took over the theme in bar 25ff, it was clearly Denis Matsuev who controlled the flow, especially as he used distinct agogics to shape every 2-bar period. It was soon clear: that part of the movement wasn’t just storming forward, nor was it just aiming for brilliance. Rather, the pianist continued to shape every phrase consciously through agogics. Denis Matsuev used a lot of sustain pedal in the triplet cascade that opens the short cadenza in bar 48ff.

After the cadenza, Chailly carefully observed the dynamic proportions, keeping the theme in the orchestra f, never covering the piano accompaniment with its ascending, punctuated fff chord sequences. The transition to the subsequent Allegro con spirito part was pensive, almost dreamy—yet, it never lost tension.

Allegro con spirito

The atmosphere changed completely: the double octaves in the solo appeared fast light, casual, if not (deliberately) a tad superficial. Then, when the solo part tightened (bars 120ff.), Denis Matsuev’s playing was momentarily fulminant, but never turned into keyboard thundering. The dynamics in the orchestral accompaniment were remarkably subtle, diligent—occasionally, one could feel the challenge of following the soloist’s agogics & rubato. Bars 190ff. were serene, pensive, retained—and the orchestra made this sound almost like a Notturno.

Throughout the movement, Denis Matsuev use extensive agogics and rubato to shape his part. His pianistic prowess is superb, needless to say: he made cantilenas sing in the lyrical segments, while in the virtuosic segments, his hands were effortlessly, almost casually flying over the keyboard. His dynamic control is remarkable, both in the soft, lyrical parts, as well as in the virtuosic highlights, where he was able to create a “big piano sound” without ever exceeding the limits of the Steinway D-274, e.g., at the triple-octave climax at bar 251ff.

The central cadenza (bar 346ff.) starts with blazing triple-octave cascades, but then—remarkably—changes into a melancholic dolce segment, from where the music gradually builds up again into the development part. There, Denis Matsuev’s rubato occasionally again proved to be somewhat of a challenge to the orchestra. Needless to say that the big cadenza (bars 538ff.) was again a pianistic masterpiece in dynamic control and balance. — ★★★★½

II. Andantino semplice — Prestissimo (Allegro vivace assai) — Tempo I

Lyricism and tension, building up expectations; a very nice dialog between wind instruments and soloist, later in a duo with the solo cello. Denis Matsuev was very careful and detailed in the articulation, diligently used the sustain pedal to control the sonority, subtle also in agogics and tempo control, building up towards the fast middle part.

That middle section (starting in bar 59) originally had the annotation Allegro vivace assai, the composer apparently found the Prestissimo in the printed version “too fast”. From looking at the score, Matsuev’s tempo definitely was Prestissimo. However, in his hands, the piano part was so fluent, flowing playfully (almost) and effortlessly (seemingly), that it was equally fitting the original annotation. I did not perceive the soloist’s playing as a demonstration of virtuosity. Well, the climax was indeed very impressive—but that was merely a short outbreak, before the lyrical almost serene atmosphere returned in the Tempo I section. Riccardo Chailly and his orchestra supported the soloist with a truly diligent accompaniment. — ★★★★½

III. Allegro con fuoco

The last movement followed quasi attacca. Here, the tempo was fulminant—Denis Matsuev expectedly masterful, even driving forward the already fast pace. Yet, to me, this was the least impressive of the movements. Was the tempo too fast, maybe? Despite all his mastership, Denis Matsuev sometimes seemed to neglect details.

I’m tempted to state that he allowed for superficialities, seemingly pushing towards the end. It was as if he had lost interest in the details of the score. Did / does he regard the movement as inferior to the others? I don’t think he has a need to turn this into a showpiece! Maybe he has performed this “warhorse concerto” too often already? Well, the audience applauded frantically anyway. — ★★★★

Overall Rating: ★★★★½

Denis Matsuev’s choice of encore seemed to confirm the “routine” aspect (probably his favorite encore), even though, of course, it is wonderful music…

Denis Matsuev, Riccardo Chailly @ LUCERNE FESTIVAL 2019. Press Photo, 2019-04-11

Solo Encore — Tchaikovsky: 18 Morceaux, op.72 – No.5, “Méditation

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893) completed his 18 Morceaux, op.72 in 1893. These Morceaux (pieces) are Tchaikovsky’s last music for piano solo, and the last piano music that was published during the composer’s lifetime.

Tchaikovsky’s “Méditation” is an all-time favorite, and Denis Matsuev of course presented his “big Russian” interpretation of this music, more than just lyrical, with a broad, intense climax, full of warmth. I really love this music, and Denis Matsuev’s take on it is among the most compelling that I know. He had performed this as part of the regular recital program on 2015-11-27, and it was his encore also in last year’s concert in Lucerne, on 2018-05-31. — ★★★★★

LUCERNE FESTIVAL 2019. Press Photo, 2019-04-11

Mussorgsky / Ravel: Pictures at an Exhibition

1874, the Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky (1839 – 1881) composed his piano cycle “Pictures at an Exhibition“. This describes a visit to an exhibition of paintings by Victor Hartmann (1834 – 1873). A recurring Promenade indicates the strolling from one (set of) picture(s) to the next:

  • Promenade
    • No.1 Gnomus — The Gnome
  • Promenade
    • No.2 Il vecchio castello — The Old Castle
  • Promenade
    • No.3 Tuileries — Children’s Quarrel after Games
    • No.4 Bydło — Cattle
  • Promenade
    • No.5 Ballet of Unhatched Chicks
    • No.6 ‘Samuel’ Goldenberg and ‘Schmuÿle’
  • Promenade
    • No.7 Limoges, le marché (La grande nouvelle) — Limoges, The Market (The Great News)
    • No.8 Catacombae (Sepulcrum romanum) & Con mortuis in lingua mortua — Catacombs (Roman Tomb) & With the Dead in Dead Language
    • No.9 Избушка на курьих ножках (Баба-Яга) — The Hut on Hen’s Legs (Baba Yaga)
    • No.10 Богатырские ворота (В стольном городе во Киеве) — The Bogatyr Gates (In the Capital in Kiev)

I have given more detailed explanations in an earlier posting from a recital in Lucerne, on 2018-11-23.

Ravel’s Instrumentation

In 1922, Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937) orchestrated the piano cycle (now listed as “Tableaux d’une exposition”, M A24). Ravel’s orchestration is the version in which Mussorgsky’s cycle is most often performed in concert today. The orchestral cycle is complete, with one exception: Ravel omitted the last instance of the “Promenade” . The movements have the same titles, with the exception of pictures 5, 9, and 10, which he translated to French:

  • Promenade
  • Gnomus (No.1)
  • Promenade
  • Il vecchio castello (No.2)
  • Promenade
  • Tuileries(No.3)
  • Bydło (No.4)
  • Promenade
  • Ballet des poussins dans leurs coques (No.5)
  • Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle (No.6)
  • Limoges — le marché (No.7)
  • Catacombae, Sepulcrum romanumCon mortuis in lingua mortua (No.8)
  • La Cabane sur des pattes de poule / Baba-Yaga (No.9)
  • La Grande Porte de Kiev (No.10)

Recently, a number of young pianists appear to have picked up the original version and included it in their repertoire. For examples see my concert reviews from Lucerne (Federico Colli, 2018-11-23) and—more recently—Yulianna Avdeeva in Wetzikon (2019-02-02). Even in my limited scope of artist encounters, another pianist who I have worked with over the past years, Oxana Shevchenko, has done the same just this spring.

LUCERNE FESTIVAL 2019. Press Photo, 2019-04-11

The Performance

Now that the focus is on the orchestra, let me start with some general remarks. The orchestral arrangement was a modern one, with the violins on the left, followed by violas (14), and cellos (10), the 9 double basses behind the cellos. The White Hall offers outstanding acoustic clarity, not only in terms of overall sound, but also in terms of spatial resolution, both lateral, as well as “longitudinal”. In other words: the listener can clearly locate instruments, both left & right, as well as front vs. back. My impression was that this orchestral setup combined this venue created a poorly balanced sound (hight pitch on the left, low pitch on the right).

As mentioned above, on the fourth floor gallery, my position was slightly closer to the violins, but the instruments on the other side of the podium played towards me, so overall, my view should have been reasonably objective, as far as the acoustic balance goes. I may have had a “more analytic view”, though, in terms of acoustic depth resolution: throughout the “Pictures”, I felt that the orchestra produced “Spaltklang” (split sound), in that the wind instruments didn’t mix very well with that of the string instruments.

Promenade — Gnomus — Promenade — Il vecchio castello — Promenade —

The sensation of split sound (Spaltklang) first occurred to me in Gnome—when I also realized how analytical the acoustics in this venue are. This may also have further exposed the moderate intonation in the low brass instruments. Why do I mention Spaltklang here? Well, people praise Ravel’s instrumentation—his art in instrumentation in general—as extraordinary, as extremely rich in colors. And I fully agree. However, “colors” can’t just be the colors of individual instruments. Rather, the true richness in colors results in mixing the sound of the individual components.

While it was definitely fascinating to follow the individual voices, the overall impression sometimes remained somewhat analytical. There were indeed some excellent solos in the wind section, e.g., in Il vecchio castello: ★★★★★ for the alto saxophone player! That voice was perfect in intonation, across the entire dynamic range, down to ppp in the final perdendosi. The wind instruments otherwise didn’t come close to that in intonation purity.

In the subsequent (third) Promenade also showed some very slight weaknesses in the coordination, especially between strings and the wind section, or in the final bar, between the harp and the pizzicato in viola and cello (a challenge, because of the ritardando).

Tuileries — Bydło — Promenade — Ballet des poussins dans leurs coques

At [35] in Tuileries, the violins sounded a little prominent for a pp sur la touche (on the fingerboard). To me, this segment was a little too concrete—shouldn’t it be more subtle, discreet? Sure, children playing in the Jardin des Tuileries can also be loud…

Bydło featured an excellent tuba solo—reinforced with euphonium, if I’m not mistaken. There were occasional, subtle weaknesses in intonation in the low winds—but it still was a pleasure to watch and hear these instruments, from horns and tuba to bassoons, contrabassoon, bass clarinet. Yes, the string sound was not as homogeneous and silken as with other ensembles, but I liked the climax in the violins.

The Ballet des poussins dans leurs coques is highly demanding in terms of coordination. Here, the performance was excellent, really virtuosic, across the orchestra. My only quibble was with the failing intonation (clarinet/oboe/flute) in the last two bars preceding the Trio—a little mishap.

Samuel Goldenberg and SchmuyleLimoges, le marché

Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle was a highlight in terms of coherence on the part of the strings. The muted trumpet(s)—well, that part is highly challenging and truly strenuous. Expecting utmost rhythmic clarity from the first to the last note may be too much?

In Limoges, le marché, Riccardo Chailly was driving the strings to the edge: highly virtuosic, perfection in coordination is a real challenge here!

Catacombae, Sepulcrum romanumCon mortuis in lingua mortua

Catacombae, Sepulcrum romanumCon mortuis in lingua mortua: interestingly, now that they were alone, the intonation issues in the wind section were gone. A coherent performance, from the low brass and bassoons to the bass clarinet.

La Cabane sur des pattes de pouleLa Grande Porte de Kiev

To me, the highlight within the “Pictures at an Exhibition” was La Cabane sur des pattes de poule — a coherent, compelling performance, convincing in coordination, brilliance in sound, and volume (★★★★).

Riccardo Chailly stayed truthful to the score when he held back the volume at the beginning of La Grande Porte de Kiev—the annotation is Maestoso and Con grandezza—but the initial volume is only f. The conductor carefully controlled the build-up, avoided making a big splash upon the sudden ff outbreaks after the woodwind intermissions. Only in the Meno mosso sempre maestoso, he gradually unleashed the forces of the orchestra, up to the brassy, truly grandiose closure.

Rating: ★★★½ — ★★★★

There were many excellent moments in this performance. However, overall, I didn’t find it quite as compelling as expected. Was the problem in linking the disparate segment to a single, convincing entity?

LUCERNE FESTIVAL 2019. Press Photo, 2019-04-11

Orchestral Encore — Rossini: Overture to the Opera “Semiramide

Riccardo Chailly selected the Overture to the Opera “Semiramide” , which Gioacchino Rossini (1792 – 1868) completed in 1823. This was Rossini’s final Italian opera.

One may argue whether Rossini’s overture was a good fit to Mussorgsky / Ravel. However, Chailly of course knew why he selected this: that’s where the ensemble was truly in its element! One could immediately feel the orchestra’s increased presence, attention and engagement, throughout all desks! That music now was truly “talking”,, the coordination was flawless, and Rossini’s motoric pattern, the dynamic and rhythmic built-up: how could this possibly fail? Of course, it didn’t—rather, it made the audience (almost) forget about the preceding compositions! — ★★★★½

AboutImpressum, LegalSite Policy | TestimonialsAcknowledgementsBlog Timeline
Typography, ConventionsWordPress Setup | Resources, ToolsTech/Methods/Pics/Photography

Leave a Comment