Piano Recital: Dmitry Masleev
Tchaikovsky / Prokofiev / Liszt
Lukaskirche, Lucerne, 2018-09-06
This year’s Lucerne Festival offers seven “Debut Series” recitals in the Lukaskirche. This review is about the fifth of these concert, a piano recital with the Russian pianist Dmitry Masleev (*1988, see also Wikipedia). Dmitry Masleev grew up in Ulan-Ude in Siberia, East of Lake Baikal. Masleev received his main piano education from the Moscow Conservatory, where he studied with Mikhail Petukhov. Dmitry Masleev’s career breakthrough happened in 2015, when he won the first prize at the XV. International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. Since then, he is touring the concert stages in Europe and America. For additional information see Wikipedia.
Last year vs. Now
This is my second concert experience with this artist: I have previously heard him play in a Concert in Zurich on 2017-12-18 (see that review for additional information on the artist). That earlier concert was with orchestra, and Dmitry Masleev presented the “Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini” for Piano and Orchestra, op.43, by Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873 – 1943): highly virtuosic, “hidden piano concerto” music. In that performance less than 9 months ago, the artist seemed rather inconspicuous, if not almost shy—quite in contrast to his excellent, if not brilliant performance.
Now, Masleev appeared to have gained additional self-confidence, entering the stage (from the back of the nave) at an almost sporty pace: well done, that appearance alone! He greeted the audience with a brief bow, then sat down, closed his eyes for a moment, focused, and started playing.
Dmitry Masleev presented a program with predominantly—what else?—Russian music, plus one of Franz Liszt’s typical virtuosic showpieces:
- Tchaikovsky: 18 Morceaux, op.72 (Nos.2, 4, 6, 7, and 14, 15, 16, 18)
- Prokofiev: Piano Sonata No.2 in D minor, op.14
- Liszt: Rhapsodie espagnole, S.254
- Encore 1: Bach / Marcello
- Encore 2: Shostakovich
The venue was well-sold, my own seat was in row 4 of the right-side lateral block in the nave. I could not observe the pianist’s hands, but otherwise I had an excellent view onto the artist. Also acoustically, that seat was excellent.
Tchaikovsky: 18 Morceaux, op.72 (selection)
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 (the Piano Sonata No.2 in C♯ minor, op.80 was written in 1865 and published posthumously).
Here’s the list of pieces in op.72 (the artist’s selection for this recital is shown in bold):
- Impromptu: Allegro moderato e giocoso (F minor)
- Berceuse: Andante mosso (A♭ major)
- Tendres reproches: Allegro non tanto ed agitato (C♯ minor)
- Danse caractéristique: Allegro giusto — Poetissimo meno allegro (D major)
- Méditation: Andante mosso (D major)
- Mazurque pour danser: Tempo di Mazurka (B♭ major)
- Polacca de concert: Tempo di Polacca (E♭ major)
- Dialogue: Allegro moderato (B major)
- Un poco di Schumann: Moderato mosso (D♭ major)
- Scherzo-fantaisie: Vivace assai (E♭ minor)
- Valse-bluette: Tempo di Valse (E♭ major)
- L’espiègle: Allegro moderato (E major)
- Echo rustique: Allegro non troppo (E♭ major)
- Chant élégiaque: Adagio — Più mosso moderato assai — Tempo I — Poco più mosso (D♭ major)
- Un poco di Chopin: Tempo di Mazurka (C♯ minor)
- Valse à cinq temps: Vivace (D major)
- Passé lontain: Moderato assai quasi Andante (E♭ major)
- Invitation au trépak, Scene dansante (Приглашение к трепаку, Танцевальная сцена): Allegro non tanto (C major)
The printed program listed the selection as 2 — 4 — 6 — 7 — 15 — 11 — 18, i.e., seven pieces. Masleev obviously changed his mind: he played two groups of four Morceaux each, omitting 11 (Valse-bluette), adding 14 and 16 instead, playing the pieces in numerical order:
- 2 — 4 — 6 — 7
- 14 — 15 — 16 — 18
The pieces within each group were played attacca, between the two group, there was a tiny break of a few seconds. Both groups formed sensible, compelling dramatic developments.
2. Berceuse: Andante mosso
A quiet, seemingly simple piece—not without challenges, however! Dmitry Masleev took the piece close to the composer’s annotated pace of ♩=72. He was maybe a tad faster. That appears to have imposed some limitations: Tchaikovsky starts the piece all pp, and with the exception of the middle part, the left hand explicitly is meant to stay sempre pp, the ending even dies away into pppp. Such soft playing is tricky on a modern concert grand (Steinway D-274) anyway, but Masleev’s pace made this virtually impossible. In my perception at least, he played mp at best, also in the ending. Maybe a slightly slower tempo would have helped?
However, that was the main limitation in Masleev’s interpretation. His left hand accompaniment stayed wonderfully calm. It seemed to keep its pace at all times (though it must have followed the agogics), while in the right hand the pianist appeared to apply free and independent, gently swaying agogics. I particularly liked the slight inégal playing with some motifs, especially at the end of a measure: excellent! The interpretation was certainly coherent and consistent. However, as stated: I could easily have imagined a slightly slower pace, reflecting the calm rhythm of a typical Berceuse, i.e., a cradle song: one shouldn’t wake up the baby! I don’t think Masleev was exceedingly nervous (unless he was hiding it really well!): was he a little impatient to get into the more virtuosic pieces? — ★★★½
4. Danse caractéristique: Allegro giusto — Poetissimo meno allegro
With this lively piece and its staccato, Masleev instantly seemed to liven up—one also could see this from his facial expression. He (again) chose a fresh pace, to the point where the demisemiquaver scales could just still be performed. In the crescendo that precedes the martellato (hammered) sections, he even accelerated. The middle part seemed fairly fluent, almost virtuosic—not sure how the Poetissimo (most poetically, presumably) should be interpreted, but the meno allegro wasn’t so much meno, i.e., “less” (joyful/fast)? — ★★★½
6. Mazurque pour danser: Tempo di Mazurka
Tchaikovsky’s tempo annotation states Tempo di Mazurka, i.e., it is a bit vague, especially considering the large variety of Mazurka types. This piece does (of course) feature the typical Mazurka rhythm. However, I would claim that Masleev’s tempo was too fast in first place. What I missed even more were those typical, swaying Mazurka agogics, the frequent hesitations that I thought were inherent to all Mazurka types? Sure, technically, Masleev had no problem mastering this at his tempo, but was it pour danser (for dancing)? Hardly! the piece seemed degraded to an introduction for the subsequent Polacca (i.e., Polonaise). — ★★½
7. Polacca de concert: Tempo di Polacca
Now, this was a piece to Masleev’s gusto: brilliant, highly virtuosic, powerful, energetic, maestoso, almost thundering in the fff and ffff (!) climaxes, though never making the sonority of the instrument break. Only in the central H major segment, the pianist allowed for some more lyrical, melodious moments. Enthralling, and well-articulated, as much as possible at the chosen, demanding pace: momentum and drive appeared more important to the artist than details in motifs and articulation. Still. technically stunning! — ★★★½
14. Chant élégiaque: Adagio — Più mosso moderato assai — Tempo I — Poco più mosso
Understandably, Dmitry Masleev waited for (very) few seconds after the climax of the Polacca, before following up with a strong contrast, with the pensive, lyrical atmosphere of the Adagio beginning of the Chant élégiaque. The performance was truly singing: the composer specified: cantando quanto possibile. The middle part (Più mosso moderato assai) has the additional annotation dolcissimo: here, Masleev played with distinct agogics, very expressive, singing—only of course until the music builds up to a local ff climax. Then, the first tempo returns, with the original theme, this time embedded in waves of demisemiquaver garlands: very nice how Masleev managed to maintain the lyricism, the presence of the melody line amidst all the “artwork”. — ★★★½
15. Un poco di Chopin: Tempo di Mazurka
Another Mazurka followed! Now, with the explicit reference to Frédéric Chopin (1810 – 1849) in the title, I would have expected this to be close in style to Chopin’s Mazurki. Sadly, Dmitry Masleev chose to turn this into a whirling, virtuosic dance—hardly a Mazurka! — ★★½
16. Valse à cinq temps: Vivace
Not surprisingly, Dmitry Masleev focused on the Vivace aspect, rather than on the waltz (a waltz in five times is a contradiction anyway!): maybe a bit pushed in the tempo, but a sparkling, joyful, virtuosic fun piece, light, and well-played! — ★★★½
18. Invitation au trépak, Scene dansante: Allegro ma non tanto — Più mosso — Moderato assai — Allegro vivacissimo
An interesting finale! The piece starts like a recitative, or rather a scenic dialogue, almost erratically altering the tempo, the character. However, with the Allegro vivacissimo, we found ourselves in a true virtuosic firework, sparkling, brilliantly played—and with a surprising ending: enthralling, overall, for sure! — ★★★★
The clear highlights were No.7 and No.18, the endpoints (climaxes) within each group. Whether it was within the composer’s intent to chain pieces together, even attacca, may be debatable. I won’t argue about this here, as each of the groups formed a dramatic entity that made sense, overall. In general, though, the performance seemed to lean towards fast (too fast) tempo. It was maybe a bit too youthful / sparkling / light for Tchaikovsky’s last composition? However, needless to say: the audience liked it!
Overall rating: ★★★½
Prokofiev: Piano Sonata No.2 in D minor, op.14
Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953) wrote his Piano Sonata No.2 in D minor, op.14 in 1912. He premiered it in 1914. The sonata has four movements:
- Allegro, ma non troppo – Più mosso – Tempo primo
- Scherzo. Allegro marcato
- Vivace – Moderato – Vivace
Dmitry Masleev just waited for the applause to end. Then, without leaving the podium, he sat down again and continued with the Prokofiev sonata:
I. Allegro, ma non troppo – Più mosso – Tempo primo
And here again: Masleev’s preference for a fluent, or rather fast tempo (where’s the ma non troppo?): fast enough, such that the Più mosso did not appear any faster. Rather, it was getting even a tad slower after a few bars. The Tempo primo (notably in 3/4, as opposed to 2/4 in the first segment!) again used the same beat, but now felt very lyrical. Where the composer wrote dolce, the playing turned very expressive. In general, Masleev’s interpretation seemed rather free, especially in the area of tempo.
The movement gradually turns more motoric, picks up a menacing atmosphere, the volume and the virtuosity grows. At the ff, Masleev produced impressive power and volume. the playing remained powerful, often urging in the dramatic segments. These alternate with moments where the music appears suspended: it’s a very multifaceted movement, erratic, unsettled at times. Dmitry Masleev’s was excellent at following these seemingly arbitrary changes in atmosphere—powerful vs. (momentarily) lyrical. His technical capabilities are astounding, his eruptions (powerful, but never overpowering) very impressive. In the final bars, the volume grew like a rocket, and inadvertently, the pianist ended with a loud stomp with the right foot (there were more of those following!). — ★★★★
II. Scherzo. Allegro marcato
The Scherzo followed attacca: a strongly motoric, rhythmic, accentuated movement. It sounded full of momentum and drive. The middle part is not marked Trio, but just uses an entirely different texture. Masleev followed the differentiation in volume but didn’t emphasize the lyrical aspects in the middle part, its contrasting nature. He rather seemed to highlight the rhythmic cross-relations with the outer part—a valid, convincing approach. The playing was once more technically excellent (ending with another, spontaneous stomp!). — ★★★★
A movement that initially seemed to depict loneliness, a void, an empty landscape, maybe? The slight agogic urging around the center of each 4-bar phrase was obviously deliberate, conscious. It may have been at the limit of being overdone, causing a certain unrest. However, at the same time it added extra tension, if not even suspense, as the movement built up towards its climax.
In the second part with its semiquaver lines, Masleev nicely highlighted the polyphony of (partly hidden) melodies, building up to an impressive (and expressive) dramatic climax, before the movement calms down, ending Adagio. It’s supposed to be ppp in the end, which I don’t think it was. Still, I found it to be a compelling and coherent interpretation. — ★★★★
IV. Vivace – Moderato – Vivace
Also the last movement followed quasi attacca. The Vivace segment started like a rocket, rapidly building up from a restless pp to a quick climax in the extremes of the keyboard, followed by a downward cascade. Motoric movement with flashes of virtuosic fireworks. Masleev presented this with clear articulation, excellent at maintaining the flow, building a dramatic arch across that initial part.
The central part is annotated Moderato, p, dolcissimo e molto espressivo: atmospheric, somewhat moody. It doesn’t stay like this for very long, however: it soon starts accelerating towards the final Vivace. That acceleration appeared associated with sparks of funny, joking interjections.
The Vivace is once more highly virtuosic: no problem for Dmitry Masleev, who seemed to master this breathtaking music almost effortlessly, giving it even a jazzy note.
To me, this movement was the best part of the sonata performance, convincing in concept and realization—congrats! — ★★★★½
Overall rating: ★★★★
Liszt: Rhapsodie espagnole, S.254
Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886) composed his Rhapsodie espagnole, S.254, R.90, in 1863. For information on the composition see also my earlier report from a concert in Zurich, on 2016-02-09. The rhapsody is performed in one piece. It features two main sections, separated by a fermata, each forming its own dramatic and virtuosic arch. And virtuosic it is, indeed—a real showpiece! Here are the tempo annotations:
- Lento — Andante moderato (Folies d’Espagne) — Allegro animato — Allegro (Jota aragonesa)
- Un poco meno Allegro — Molto vivace — Sempre presto e ff — Non troppo allegro
Some general notes to start: right from the beginning, I realized how much Dmitry Masleev is embedded in—and has adopted—the Russian Piano School (or what is perceived here as such), following the tradition of the great Russian pianists, up to artists such as Denis Matsuev (*1975) and many others—a tradition that is bound to continue over decades to come. At the same time, Masleev has also totally adopted, incorporated the sonority of the modern concert grand, such as this Steinway D-274.
With both these adoptions, Dmitry Masleev places himself at quite a distance from what one might call historically informed Liszt playing: Liszt’s pianos (such as the grand pianos by Boisselot, on which—among others—the composer was playing) had a much different, lighter and clearer sonority (and different behavior of the dampers)—see also my earlier concert review from 2016-05-17.
Along with exploiting the sonority of the modern grand, in highly dramatic parts, Masleev’s playing is very virtuosic, dominated by power (if not overpowering). That said: he did an excellent job at staying within the limits of the instruments: there were no twanging strings, even in the loudest passages. However, Liszt could never exert such power on his instruments—so, in all likelihood, his playing must have been dominated by brilliance, possibly elegance. With the instruments contributing clarity and color, that must have made up for an entirely sound experience!
Lento — Andante moderato (Folies d’Espagne) — Allegro animato — Allegro (Jota aragonesa)
Apart from the sound / sonority with the instrument: I would characterize Masleev’s playing as highly virtuosic, also brilliant (but not primarily elegant), amassing impressive volume already in the fireworks of the opening section. In the subsequent variations on Folies d’Espagne, Masleev continued on the astoundingly virtuosic / technical path, advancing relentlessly towards the climax with its towering triple-octave parallels.
The Jota aragonesa bears annotations such as non legato, con grazia, and leggiero con grazia. It was indeed lighter—but still, I somehow missed the “Mediterranean climate”: this is a popular Spanish folk tune, and I think it deserves more enjoying, some irony, maybe, with the occasional retention, vivid agogics? I can’t criticize Masleev’s technique in any way—but I think the pianist made too much of a showpiece of that section, didn’t bring out the fun, the irony, the natural vivacity in this music…
Un poco meno Allegro — Molto vivace — Sempre presto e ff — Non troppo allegro
The Un poco meno Allegro (modulating, like the development part of a hidden sonata form?) brings a sharp contrast: suddenly, the music is retained, pensive—seemingly ignoring the embedded Jota. Though, the latter soon prevails. With the growing technical demands, the “scent of Russian piano playing” returned, tempo and virtuosity prevailed over obtaining the ultimate in refinement in articulation.
Dmitry Masleev’s tempo was breathtaking, may have ben slightly exaggerated. That said: Dmitry Masleev retained amazing precision and transparency. Still, one could feel how close he was to overdoing the tempo—from the occasional missed keys in the last part, from the Sempre presto e ff to the end.
I concede that the reverberation in the church acoustics may have defeated some of the clarity in Masleev’s playing.
Encore 1 — Bach / Marcello
With so much artistry / keyboard acrobatics, the applause inevitably was frenetic. As a first encore, Dmitry Masleev played the slow movement, Adagio, from Bach’s Concerto in D minor, BWV 974, by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750). This is a keyboard transcription of the Oboe Concerto in D minor, S.D935 (S.Z799) by the Venetian composer Alessandro Marcello (1673 – 1747).
It’s a wonderfully calm, contemplative piece with slightly melancholic serenity. Understandingly, after the preceding virtuosic challenges, it took the pianist a while to find the calm, resting pace in this music. He aptly played with appropriate, baroque ornamentation and gentle, swaying agogics. Only towards the end, he added extra ornaments of his own. In the last bars, he could not resist adding one or the other bass doubling, and the sonority started reminding of transcriptions by Ferruccio Busoni (1866 – 1924) and companions.
I think that both the audience and the artist needed such music, to calm down after the excitement of the preceding virtuosic artistry!
On a side note: I was amazed how well the Steinway grand retained its tuning, after all the virtuosic playing!
Encore 2 — Shostakovich
Dmitry Masleev, however, did not want to end without an extra piece from his home country, and he turned to—sports! Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 – 1975) was an avid football fanatic—his favorite team at the time was Zenit Leningrad, now FC Zenit Saint Petersburg (Футбо́льный клуб «Зени́т»). It’s no miracle that one of Shostakovich’s popular compositions is “Football”, the second piece from the Music to the spectacle “Russian River” (Русская река), op.66, composed 1944. “Football” originally is for orchestra.
So, with a transcription of “Football” for piano, the concert ended in an excited, breathless, chasing, often jazzy mood—with music that is real fun to listen to, and a perfect “last dance”!