Piano Recital Denis Matsuev
Tchaikovsky, Liszt, Rachmaninoff

Tonhalle Zurich, 2015-11-27

4-star rating

2015-12-02 — Original posting
2016-08-16 — Brushed up for better readability

Denis Matsuev
Denis Matsuev (source: matsuev.com; © 2011)

Table of Contents

Introduction — About the Artist

Denis Leonidovich Matsuev (*1975) grew up in Irkutsk, into a family of musicians. He received the core part of his musical education at the Moscow conservatory. His international career instantly took off after he won the 11th Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, 1998. He now is a key exponent of the Russian piano school, a well-known pianist at the top of his career, and appearing in festivals and concert halls all over the world. For more information on Denis Matsuev’s biography see also Wikipedia.

Denis Matsuev’s technical abilities are virtually without limits, and he is most at home with the highly virtuosic, late romantic repertoire. Highlights from his recitals are also present on YouTube, see below. Just one example for his abilities: there are probably not many pianists who would dare playing both the second and the third of Rachmaninoff’s piano concertos in one and the same concert! Naturally, his recital in the big hall of Tonhalle Zurich featured cornerstones from his favorite virtuoso repertoire (Liszt, Rachmaninoff). Fortunately Matsuev combined this with works that also present his abilities in the area of lyrical music.

Tchaikovsky: The Seasons

The first part of the concert exclusively consisted of the piano cycle Les Saisons” (The Seasons), op.37a (or op.37b) by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893).

The Composition

The title of this cycle seems to suggest a connection with Vivaldi’s cycle of four violin concertos “Le quattro stagioni“. Indeed, each of the pieces in Tchaikovsky’s work has an associated short poem (by a Russian poet, such as Pushkin), just like Vivaldi’s four concertos (Vivaldi allegedly created those poems himself). But unlike Vivaldi, Tchaikovsky decided to write one short piece per month, rather than one per season (in Vivaldi’s case, one could argue that each concerto consists of three movements, hence again resulting in 12 pieces):

  1. Janvier (“Au coin du feu” / At the fireplace)
    Moderato semplice, ma espressivo — Meno mosso — Tempo I
  2. Février (“Carnaval” / Carnival)
    Allegro giusto — L’istesso tempo
  3. Mars (“Chant de l’alouette” / Song of the lark)
    Andantino espressivo
  4. Avril (“Perce-neige” / Snowdrop)
    Allegretto con moto e un poco rubato
  5. Mai (“Les nuits de mai” / The night of May)
    Andantino — Allegretto giocoso — Poco meno mosso — Andantino
  6. Juin (“Barcarolle”)
    Andante cantabile — Poco più mosso — Allegro giocoso — Tempo I
  7. Juillet (“Chant du faucheur” / The reaper’s song)
    Allegro moderato con moto
  8. Août (“La moisson” / The harvest)
    Allegro vivace — Dolce cantabile — Tempo I
  9. Septembre (“La chasse” / The hunt)
    Allegro non troppo
  10. Octobre (“Chant d’automne” / Autumn song)
    Andante doloroso e molto cantabile
  11. Novembre (“Troïka”)
    Allegro moderato
  12. Décembre (“Noël” / Christmas)
    Tempo di Valse — Trio — Tempo di Valse — Coda

The Interpretation — General Remarks

Most of the pieces in Tchaikovsky’s cycle are in A-B-A form. In comparison to other compositions of the late-romantic repertoire, some of these pieces may (depending on the interpretation, of course) seem harmless, maybe even trivial or too sweet. However, Matsuev was really excellent in avoiding these dangers! He played most pieces at a relatively fluent pace, but never nervous. His interpretation appeared unpretentious, never overloaded with expression, yet never cool, distant, or devoid of emotions. I found his playing to be lyrical, often introverted, pensive, atmospheric and immersed in the contemplative segments. Matsuev used a carefully adjusted amount of rubato, his fast interjections turned into playful arabesques.

The Interpretation — Specifics

Also the faster passages remained playful, effortless, without pathos, never hard. Matsuev applied carefully differentiated, yet restrained dynamics almost throughout. For example, the energico in June (Barcarolle) was rather mf, if not p, not f as given in the score. I really liked

  • the flourishing middle part in May (a gentle wind emerging in the middle of the night?),
  • the central Allegro giocoso part in the Barcarolle,
  • the jaunty July, the humorous-virtuosic August,
  • the very pictorial representation of a hunt in September.
  • I also found the melancholic autumn song in October compelling, with differentiated agogics, the gentle flourishing in the middle part (pleasant, friendly memories?), and how in the end the music died away into pppp, into almost complete silence.
  • The Troïka in November was triumphant, but not loud, very fast, yet unpretentious. One could argue that in fast segments, details of the articulation were played over, almost superficially, that maybe some staccato was not recognizable as such. But this is not the place for virtuosic showing-off.
  • In December, the molto ritardando was done just marginally. But this allowed Matsuev to maintain the musical flow.

Throughout the cycle, I never felt bored. Clearly, to me, Tchaikovsky’s “Seasons” were the highlight of the evening, along with the Méditation by the same composer, see below.

Liszt: Mephisto-Waltz No.1

Most people in the audience had of course turned up to watch and hear Matsuev’s virtuosic artistry (almost like an attraction in a circus). The first piece in that category was the well-known Mephisto Waltz No.1, S.514, (after “Der Tanz in der Dorfschenke” / The Dance in the Village Inn) by Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886). this is a highly virtuosic, almost grotesque piece, obviously diabolic (following the title).

A Range of Views by Other Artists

One can hear a broad scope of interpretations of this work:

  • thundering octaves and staccato excesses in Vladimir Horowitz‘ colorful interpretation,
  • György (Georges) Cziffra‘s exalted grotesqueness in his strong “Hungarian” rubato (with dramatic, momentary accelerations and ritardandi),
  • up to the concept of letting the music express itself, by staying close to the written score, as with Arthur Rubinstein.

Matsuev’s Take on the Waltz

Denis Matsuev played this composition almost as if it were Rachmaninoff. Here, the grotesque aspect expressed itself in the fulminant fireworks of extremely rapid passages. His playing was very fluent / fast, always very energetic — and with limited (rather than too much) sustain pedal. Yet he avoided exaggerated staccato, the music was never sterile. But on the other hand, at this tempo, the notes often merged into a formless mush. To me, this was clearly too fast, played for the mere effect — particularly the explosive ending.

Tchaikovsky: Méditation

Before launching the virtuosic highlight of the evening, Denis Matsuev played a little intermezzo — another composition by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: from the “18 Morceaux (Pieces)”, op.72 the number 5, “Méditation” — a well-known piece of 5 minutes, often serving as encore.

The Performance

This again showed Denis Matsuev’s lyrical side. I really liked this interpretation — I could repeat my comments on “The Seasons” above, except that the virtuosic middle part in this composition is more intense (both as a composition, as well as in Matsuev’s interpretation) and louder than anything in “Les Saisons”. The artist really took this as a lyrical introduction to the following work. He did not even leave the podium before sitting down again for the final piece in the official part of the program:

Rachmaninoff: Piano Sonata No.2

The official program ended with the Piano Sonata No.2 in B♭ minor, op.36, by Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873 – 1943). This is a showpiece in highly virtuosic piano literature, full of monstrous technical challenges. In striving for fame and reputation, most pianists today seem to play the first, original version of this sonata, from 1913. Rachmaninoff wasn’t quite satisfied with that composition. He primarily found it to be too long. In 1931 he published a second version, slightly shorter, and with a few simplifications. It still remains a technically very challenging piece, though. I find it commendable by the artist that he does not follow the crowd, but instead plays that later (1931) version of the sonata.

The Performance

Already in the first movement (Allegro agitato — Meno mosso — Tempo I) I noticed Denis Matsuev’s fast, fluent playing. Again, he used limited sustain pedal, did not obscure the texture of the score through extensive pedaling. His interpretation was dramatic, expansive, focused on the big phrases / dynamic arches. It made the listener forget about the technical challenges. At the same time, as a listener, one experienced more of a late-romantic painting than details of the complex score.

The middle part (Non allegro — Lento — Poco più mosso — Tempo I) was expressive, often lyrical, with warm colors and a well-rounded piano tone. The Poco più mosso segment was very emote, eruptive in the impressive climax, preparing for the last movement. The piece ends calm, returning to the initial scenery.

There is an almost seamless transition to the third movement (attacca: L’istesso tempo — Allegro molto — Tempo rubato — Presto). That last part was a single series of fireworks, eruptive, very fast, sometimes forceful, building impressive, towering volume and emotions. But overall, particularly in this movement I felt that the tempo was too fast. It was played with apparent perfection (as much as the ear could follow). However, it was impossible for the ear and the eye to gather even just an outline of the piano score, to follow all the mind-boggling scales and octave parallels. Details were lost. And this turned the music into a mere circus sensation.

Yes, Matsuev’s playing is extremely impressive, maybe unmatched — but my preference would have been to be more than just overwhelmed. In particular, I would like to be able to listen into the music—not just to drown in a sea of notes. The performance in Zurich was faster than the one in Verbier 2012 (see below).


As expected (in a circus!), the applause was frantic. The audience obviously received what it expected. Denis Matsuev gave several encores in rapid succession. The first two of these would have been impossible for me to figure out. Luckily, Michelle Ziegler from the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ 2015-11-30) did the research (thanks a lot!). She posted all encores in her review. Here they are, with links to more information:

  1. Anatoly Lyadov (1855 – 1914): Muzikalnaya tabakerka (A musical snuffbox) for piano in A major, op.32 (1893)
  2. Jean Sibelius (1865 – 1957): No.2, “Etude“, from the 13 Pieces for piano“, op.76 (1911 – 1919)
  3. Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873 – 1943): from 13 Préludes“, op.32: Prelude (Allegro) in G♯ minor, op.32/12 (1910)
  4. Alexander Scriabin (1872 – 1915): Etude in D♯ minor (Patetico), op.8/12 (1894)
  5. Jazz improvisation

Part II of the Concert?

The encores started harmlessly with the little piece by Lyadov. The Sibelius Etude was a little more involved. The Rachmaninoff Prélude was definitely playful-virtuosic, but also very expressive. With the Etude by Scriabin (it remotely reminds me of Chopin’s Prélude in D minor, op.28/24, Allegro appassionato) Matsuev was definitely back in the highly virtuosic repertoire.

The fifth encore was different. It was Matsuev’s own, 5-minute Jazz improvisation. That started off as a harmless tune, then gradually built up to an ending with furious, almost destructive keyboard thundering. I’d prefer this not to happen to my piano!


There was a frenetic, standing ovation. This made me wonder why the venue (the large hall in the Tonhalle) was only moderately populated. Matsuev has been playing that same repertoire for a couple of years. Perhaps, the fact that both Tchaikovsky’s Méditation, as well as Rachmaninoff’s Sonata No.2 are also present (as close-up video!) on YouTube (see below) didn’t help filling the venue?

Addendum 1

For the same concert, I have also written a (shorter) review in German for Bachtrack.com. This posting is not a translation of that German review, the rights of which remain with Bachtrack. I create the German review using a subset of the notes taken during this concert. I wanted to enable my non-German speaking readers to read about my concert experience as well. Therefore, I have taken my original notes as a loose basis for this separate posting. I’m including additional material that is not present in the Bachtrack review.

Addendum 2

Some 18 months ago, in a Listening Diary, I have briefly reviewed a recording of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “Les Saisons”, op.37a, with the pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy.

Addendum 3

A number of popular interpretations by Denis Matsuev were available on YouTube. For this program, one could find two pieces, both recorded at the Verbier Festival 2012: the “Méditation”, op.72/5, by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and the 1931 version of the Piano Sonata No.2 in B♭ minor, op.36 by Sergei Rachmaninoff — unfortunately, both these videos have since been removed.

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