Symphony Hall was nearly full yesterday for a matinee recital by Denis Matsuev, the 43-year-old Russian pianist. I bought a cheaper seat, since I wasn’t previously a fan and I didn’t think the playlist included any of my favorites. But sometimes programs change – after I bought the ticket, I went online to check the program so I could do some pre-concert homework and a work by Schumann that had been listed in the paper guide to this season that I reference most often had been replaced by Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Number 3 in C Major.
Over the past few months I’ve become completely enamored of the Beethoven Piano Sonatas – I believe they are some of the most beautiful work for the instrument, and they are among my favorite Beethoven compositions. When great composers write for instruments at which they have virtuosic talent the results can be extraordinary. Matsuev opened the concert with the Third Sonata, the third of three sonatas that comprise Opus 2, composed in 1795. Beethoven’s early works owe much to Haydn and to Mozart – indeed he dedicated Opus 2 to Haydn, his teacher and friend. Though their relationship was always tense, the two shared a mutual admiration. The beautiful second movement in this sonata is not as emotionally intense as the centers of many of the sonatas that follow, but it nonetheless provides a breathtaking dramatic interlude. Rounded out with the themes of the first and third movements, Matsuev had plenty of great material with which to open his performance.
The second piece was the only other work on the program I had any experience listening to prior to the concert – Rachmaninov’s Variations on a Theme by Corelli. The titular “theme” is La Folia, which comes up in the Suzuki repertoire, so I have explored it in some depth. Variations was composed in 1931 and dedicated to the violinist Fritz Kreisler. Rachmaninov himself did not really love his Variations; he found it boring. I admit that it goes on for a bit (perhaps eighteen is, in fact, three or four too many variations), but the exhilarating highs and dramatic lows allowed Matsuev to display an impressive range, making the piece a good choice.
First up after intermission came the work I was most excited about going into the recital – at least it had been prior to my learning that Beethoven was on the program – Chopin’s 1842 Ballade No. 4. The piece is considered the height of Chopin’s achievements, in fact the composer himself is thought to have considered it a favorite. Despite the title Ballade, Chopin’s four works bearing the designation are not intended to narrate; their story is purely musical. The program notes, by Richard Rodda, say “Chopin seems to have been the first composer to apply the title to a piece of abstract instrumental music, apparently indicating that his four ballades hint at a dramatic flow of emotions such as could not be appropriately contained by traditional classical forms.” Matsuev’s performance was deft and inspired.
Tchaikovsky’s late (1893) piece, a Meditation from Opus 72, bridged the gap between Chopin and the final programmed work, Prokofiev’s powerful Sonata Number 7, released in 1942 as one of the modern Russian composer’s “War” Sonatas. While Matsuev skillfully wrought the other works in the program, it was in this Prokofiev Sonata finale that the performer was able to shine best. Power is the theme, especially of the final movement, and Matsuev seized the reins. Though his performance was undeniably first-rate, I’m generally hit or miss in my appreciation of Prokofiev; this Sonata was a rare piece by the legendary Russian that, for me, goes down the middle.
The audience was tickled by Matsuev’s approach to encores – he did three of them, and didn’t put on airs of waiting for long stretches of applause. Each time he would simply walk back out, take a quick bow, sit down, and start playing again. The first two were extremely soft, delicately lovely pieces that seemed designed to counter the Prokofiev he had just completed. The last was a jazz showpiece for virtuosos complete with glitter and glissandos designed to bring any house down.
Thanks for reading.