Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto, No. 2 / Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue
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Audio CD, May 28, 2013
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Eminent Russian pianist DENIS MATSUEV
presents his first recording with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, under the baton of Alan Gilbert, with Rachmaninoff's famous Piano Concerto No. 2 and Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue,
an album where two classical masters of the 20th century meet. Denis Matsuev has become one of the fastest rising stars on the international concert stage since his triumphant victory
at the 11th International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1998 and has quickly established himself as one of the most sought-after pianists of his generation. He has developed into one
of the most prominent pianists of the Russian School and appears regularly with leading orchestras around the world including the New York Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony
Orchestra, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Berlin Philharmonic, London Symphony and Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Matsuev is the Musical Ambassador to the Sergei Rachmaninoff
Foundation and his recording of Piano Concerto No. 2 is in celebration of the 140th anniversary of the composer's birth.
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Such romanticism is slightly less welcome in the Rhapsody, which responds better to e.g. the throwaway flamboyance of Tilson Thomas with his New World Symphony. But there can be no doubt that Matsuev loves the work, a feeling rarely communicated in the rest of his technically proficient discography.
(Matsuev's 2007 record of Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich concerti was flawed in the opposite direction; Temirkanov dialed his orchestra way down toward the classical end of the spectrum, eliciting especially weak contributions from the brass, and maintained reverently slow tempi during even the most throwaway transitional material.)
And it is particularly tragic because Matsuev provides a masterful example of almost unbelievable virtuosity in the Rachmaninov, and he is supported marvelously by the New York Philharmonic under Alan Gilbert, with no sense of routine accompaniment. They really dig in and play their hearts out.
Even in the Gershwin, Matsuev shows us a different way, still delightful, but somewhat straight-laced in style, leaving Earl Wild to remain the exemplar of the ur-text tradition and still holder of the crown. However I think one must also say that Matsuev isn't helped very much by Alan Gilbert and the NYPO who are strangely awkward and seem ironically inhibited by the American style, as if they are just going through the motions, and they don't "feel" at ease with the music like Arthur Fiedler and the BSO do for Earl Wild.
Never-the-less, for the ultimate in virtuosity and Russian fire, despite the over-engineered, mushy sound, hear Matsuev play the Rachmaninov Second Piano Concerto. You won't regret it! - It's an unforgettable experience! - BUY IT!
Matsuev, now 38, possesses such a commanding technique that he quickly rose above all but a tiny handful of his Russian rivals, and you immediately hear that combination of power and dazzling speed which, in their various ways, brought Gilels, Richter, and Kissin to eminence. In my mind Matsuev is closest to Gilels, because both exude weighty authority. Detractors would criticize Matsuev for hammering, but on the two occasions I heard him live, that would be mere carping. He's the rightful heir to a great Russian keyboard lineage.
to the music at Hand: There have been a clutch of Rachmaninov Seconds in recent years from Lang Lang, Yuja Wang, and now Matsuev. I find it hard to let go of Wang's mercurial, exuberant performance, which bypasses Rachmaninov's morose soulfulness in favor of crystalline fingerwork and the utmost clarity. By comparison, Matsuev is more Russian and impresses me with his total immersion in Rachmaninov's idiom - after all, this is the composer he has recorded the most and whose music he carries on tour constantly. Happily, nothing sounds tired or routine. The last recording in the same vein was the young Kissin's, and this new one comes in much better sound, culminating in a finale that vies with Kissin for brilliance and exceeds him in panache.
Matsuev has several YouTube videos where he plays jazz, a love of his that might embarrass to-the-manner-born Americans. We assume that any Rhapsody in Blue attempted east of Manhattan will never sound like jazz. For that matter, the number of classically trained American pianists who have successfully recorded the piece isn't large - Bernstein, Previn, and Tilson Thomas come to mind. The perfect clarinet solo that introduces this reading tells us that we are on firm ground with the NY Philharmonic, which plays the standard concert orchestration with strings rather than the Paul Whiteman jazz-band original.
And Matsuev? He's not really loose enough, and it doesn't come naturally to him to swing. His technique is so big that he can't trim it down, so the effect is rather like a Wagnerian soprano invited to sing The Star-Spangled Banner at a baseball game. but I don't agree with a previous reviewer who calls this performance a curiosity. Gilbert and his musicians sound just right, which counts for a lot. They are also exemplary in the Rachmaninov, if a little divorced from Russian melancholy.
In all, this is an album worth waiting for if you are a Matsuev fan. I could easily keep it as the best (or only)Rachmaninov Second in my collection.