Many critics and devotees of classical music hail pianist Denis Matsuev quite simply as a genius. The Irkutsk-born virtuoso, now aged 35, has had a brilliant career that reached new heights following his triumph at the International Tchaikovsky Competition, and an immensely successful future also beckons. This year Matsuev was awarded the Shostakovich Award that is annually conferred on outstanding artists of the music world by the Yuri Bashmet International Foundation. The Siberian youngster’s international career was given a helping hand by the New Names Charity Foundation, of which he is now president.
The young musician performed Rachmaninov with such virtuosity that the composer’s grandson, Alexander, chose him to play and record two of the great composer’s early pieces – a fugue and a suite – during the 2007-2008 Season when Matsuev also gave a series of “Unknown Rachmaninov” concert programmes. The pianist has truly elemental energy – chords rip across the keyboard with tornado-like force, punctuated by the pounding hail of staccato, and then followed by slow passages redolent of a serene summer morning, and suddenly by a coda in very subdued tones. Despite the almost stadium-like applause, Matsuev reacts to the public’s adulation with remarkable composure and his characteristic sense of humour. By his own admission, he gets a regular reality check from his parents who notice any poor legato or limping staccato. Yet critics sing his praises as the “Siberian Liszt” and “new Horovitz”.
» You came to Moscow from the Siberian city of Irkutsk with support from the New Names Charity Foundation, and immediately started touring the world and performing to heads of state in the most prestigious halls. How did you keep your feet on the ground with such huge success?
My friends and I – those of us who were beneficiaries of the Foundation – certainly did not comprehend what was happening. We played at Buckingham Palace, the Vatican and the United Nations Headquarters – it was all really wonderful but we saw the concerts more as a means of communicating and a way of seeing the world. Also, my parents went with me, and ever since I was a child, they had drummed into me that you had to treat everything with irony – successes and failures alike. Do you think the first time I wasn’t allowed to enrol in the Tchaikovsky Competition, I thought the world was going to end? No, like a sportsman, (and until the age of 15, I played sport at a professional level) I kept pursuing my goal. The success of the first generation of New Names is all down to the extraordinary Professor Sergey Dorensky who I got to study under in 1997. He became virtually a second father to me.
» You mean you were lucky?
Choosing a profession is an unpredictable business – a lottery – you don’t know what’s ahead of you. No matter how brilliantly you play, you may still not be noticed. That’s the tragedy – lots of talented people are either in the wrong profession or fail to reach their full potential in their chosen profession. You see, there’s no precise formula for getting a breakthrough. A music school student has no idea which festivals he should be taking part in, showing himself at, just as he doesn’t know about the specialist schools. So just one in every 1,000 makes it, so to speak, while the rest spend their lives in abject poverty. It was to rectify this situation that producer David Smelyansky and I first set up the Crescendo itinerant festival. It’s been held in various towns for five years now. We decided to show the new generation of musicians in Russia. They are unique talents and their numbers are increasing. I’m constantly asked why I do it when I have 150 concerts a year as it is, and I spend my life on planes. But I enjoy giving others a helping hand more than I do getting help myself. The New Names programme gave me a fine start to launch my career. I want to give others a chance to fulfil their potential, and show this new generation to the world.
» What emotions do you experience during a concert?
Someone once defined my style of playing as “rowdy”. But how can there not be an upsurge of emotion when you’re playing a Rachmaninov concerto? A concerto is all about passion, ecstasy, you have to give yourself up totally to the music. I’ve calmed down a bit over the years – I used to really let rip on stage. It’s a mix of highly charged emotion and humour at times, and intricate and subtle sensations at others – after all, it’s not mostly about playing loudly and energetically – you can convey nuances in the quietest of tones. Some musicians aren’t bothered about how they are received and simply play for their own satisfaction. I myself play for the audience and see myself primarily as a medium for conveying a composer’s ideas.
» Has your perception of pieces changed over the years?
Of course, and interpretation, too – the most important thing in music. There are some pieces you play particularly often and you can trace when you discover something entirely new in them, and in yourself. For instance, Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky concertos are most in demand – I get to play them about 30-40 times a year. What more could you possibly find in these scores, you might well ask? But you want to bring the public something new, especially when you’re performing to an audience after a break. A concert is an unexpected process, you never know how it will end up. Sometimes after long flights you feel sleep-deprived and insufficiently “limbered up” and you go rushing into the hall in a terrible state and yet still manage to play inspirationally with this nervous energy – that’s how your body snaps into action.
But sometimes you’ve had a lot of rehearsals and feel calm, and the concert doesn’t go well. Technically everything seems fine, you get lots of applause and rave reviews but there’s been no chemical reaction, no subtle mutual understanding that’s so essential with an audience. And then there are the pieces I’ve learned and set aside for better times – I’m waiting to feel mature enough for them. They are a range of older and contemporary pieces, and I’m simply waiting until I understand them. There’s a Chopin concerto I’m not playing just now – I don’t know why I’m not ready to but I can’t attain the image I feel the composer created. And it’s not right to simply play it well from a technical point of view. That’s how most child prodigies play. Incidentally, in adulthood around 90 percent of them simply vanish from the scene. A young girl may play Chopin marvellously and you can tell she’s playing intuitively, and she’s divinely inspired. But a lot of work is needed to develop this gift, nurture and carry it on until adulthood. Parents and teachers often try to exploit such gifts but, you know, a child’s inner world and such talent are very fragile things.
» There are a lot of famous Russian musicians on the world scene nowadays. Is it fair to say the Russian school is the best in the world?
So far we’ve kept going under our own momentum, just as we have in sport, thanks to the achievements of the Soviet school. But we must work on bringing on the young generation. This excellence in musical performance is definitely going to be lost unless we look after those who are working in music schools and colleges. Teachers have gone off to teach the Chinese, Japanese and Americans. The entire Far East of our country is working in China where they can earn 10 times more. Until recently, people at Moscow’s elite central music school were getting100 dollars a month – various grants are available but people dash about, trying to find good work. There used to be quite a good recruitment system that at least guaranteed people a job. Nowadays, though, people are being left without work after devoting 90 percent of their lives to the profession. It’s a tragedy – they either ruin their lives through drinking or change profession. That’s why our Crescendo festival came about – to get these musicians noticed so they can make their name in Russia first. The festival brings together a lot of the famous musicians who left Russia in the 90s and made their name in the West. I get flak for this – I’m asked why I need to have these people who fled Russia. And I always respond with another question: what did they do in order for these people not to leave?
» And why haven’t you left?
I simply can’t be far from home, I like sleeping in my own bed. I’m no diehard Russian patriot – I actually like spending time in Moscow. In fact, I only spend 45 days a year at home. I chose a profession that enables me to travel the world, playing with outstanding conductors and superb orchestras but I feel genuinely happy when I get back to Moscow.
» Your hands are your instrument. You used not to take much care of them – you’ve broken your arms several times. For a musician and his fans that’s a real disaster. Maxim Vengerov, for instance, has a shoulder problem he still hasn’t managed to cure completely. Have you started taking better care of yourself over the years?
Yes, as a child, I broke my arms three times – fighting and playing sport. I can’t take better care of myself when I have a schedule to keep, and I don’t want to change anything. I hope I can stand the pace. I must play while I’m able to, and the main thing later on will be to retire at the right time, like Galina Vishnevskaya. When I realise my technique isn’t up to scratch or I start feeling fatigued or uninspired, I’ll have to at least take a break.
» But right now you’re playing with immense passion – famously, during a performance in Paris your piano collapsed...
That was ages ago. It didn’t collapse because I got so carried away, though it was a very passionate performance – its screws hadn’t been tightened properly. Thank God, nothing like it has ever happened since. Although once I was performing with Valery Gergiev in San Diego and walked out onto the stage to find I had been given a small revolving stool instead of a normal one to sit on. And we were performing Rachmaninov’s Concerto No.3, a masterpiece that’s really complex and emotional – you have to be totally focused every second of the time. It was the most difficult concert of my life – not only did I have to play, I also had to keep my balance.
» Is it true you have three Yamaha pianos and you have one brought to the particularly important concerts you perform, and the tuner you have used to work with Svyatoslav Richter?
Yes, and he’s told me lots of secrets. A concert hall may have a good piano but the potential of every piano and pianist varies, and musicians perform different repertoires. But everything’s ready when it’s your own instrument – you just sit down and play. And, what’s more, the same instrument has to be tuned differently for different venues and pieces. Over the past month, for instance, I’ve played 13 different programmes and you can’t take your own piano with you every time.
» And how do you still find time for a personal life with such a schedule?
I do have a personal life. When you’re travelling all the time, every get-together turns into a really special kind of party. I do, incidentally, feel the presence of women during my concerts. I salute a woman’s emotional range, energy, and style. I’m grateful to my parents for giving me the right attitude to women. For me, my mother and grandmother have been the epitome of effortless grace.