Conductor: Valery Gergiev
Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No 3 in D Minor, Op. 30 - Denis Matsuev
Rachmaninoff: Symphonic Dances
Back in a sold-out Carnegie Hall on Tuesday night for my last date with Valery Gergiev for a while, I was getting mentally prepared to wrap up the crash course in the Russian repertoire I had been happily putting myself through for the past couple of weeks. After Tchaikovsky's unabashed Romanticism, Stravinsky's ground-breaking modernism and Shostakovich's irreverent zaniness, the spot was on Rachmaninoff with his irrepressible Piano Concerto No 3 and his irresistible Symphonic Dances. I was not familiar with Denis Matsuev, the pianist who would attempt to tame the wild beast, but my friend Linden and I were very eager to watch them battle it out, safe from our perch way above the fray.
A young man of imposing stature, Denis Matsuev indeed looked the part when he arrived on stage, and he certainly proved he had the technique, power and stamina to keep the formidable "Rach 3" under control. What was occasionally missing though, was the delicate lyricism of the quieter passages, which were handled with plenty of skills but little emotion. Once the haunting opening was over and he had made his understated entrance, Matsuev grabbed the monster and ran with it, resolutely never looking back. The notoriously challenging peaks exploded in all their might, the inconspicuous valleys remained in the shadows. But the journey was still an incredible ride, with a particularly animated Gergiev making sure the orchestra provided a solid background to the revved-up soloist.
The audience was so enthusiastic in showing its appreciation that Denis Matsuev eventually came back for two encores. The first one was more Rachmaninoff with "Étude-tableau", Op. 39, No 2, which came out as a little wonder of melancholy ― an unquestionable proof that the flashy fireball had a sensitive side too ― while the second one turned out to be some wild jazzy improvisation that did not want to end. This combination of variety and virtuosity comforted me in the notion that whatever might happen with the Symphonic Dances, my evening had just been made.
But there was no reason to wonder because the second work on the program gloriously opened with its famed infectious exuberance, which would soon contrast sharply with somber moments and elegiac passages. From this embarrassment of melodic richness, among which stood out discreet references to the "Dies Irae" and other spooky chants, Rachmaninoff's fundamental Romanticism rose beautifully thanks to some striking combinations among a wide range of instruments, including a piano, a harp and a saxophone. The orchestra responded to the unique composition with finesse and gusto, each section getting a chance to shine in all its bright colors before all coming together to create an unusually brilliant patchwork.
Last week, after the all-Stravinsky program we got to enjoy a muscular overture to Verdi's La Forza del Destino. On Tuesday night, it is Wagner we got to take home with an absolutely stunning overture to Lohengrin. Parting may be sweet sorrow, but the memories will be of complete happiness.