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Music Review

Pianist Denis Matsuev’s power overwhelms

Denis Matsuev performs at Sanders Theatre on Saturday night.

Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

Denis Matsuev performs at Sanders Theatre on Saturday night.

CAMBRIDGE — Even in today’s overrun piano virtuoso market, Denis Matsuev stands out. On the evidence of his recordings, he possesses an epic technique, playing with seemingly superhuman speed, power, and agility.

At his Saturday recital in Harvard’s Sanders Theatre, it was pleasant to discover that Matsuev can also produce the kind of singing tone and silvery pianissimo most pianists only dream about. But alas, this well-attended concert was devoted mostly to barnstorming heroics, and by the end, I wished for some relief to the unremitting bravura.

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In his curtain-raiser, Matsuev responded with grace and swagger to the impish brilliance of Haydn’s Sonata in E-flat major, Hob. XVI: 52. The masterly second movement showed Matsuev at something like his best, demonstrating suave phrasing and extraordinary tonal refinement.

Schumann’s great character suite, Carnaval, was less consistently compelling. Throughout, Matsuev confirmed a worrying tendency to sacrifice clarity for speed. A heavy pedal-foot only exacerbated the problem; whole paragraphs of musical argument were lost in a rush of sound. But the real casualty was musical character.

Where were the heraldic grandeur of “Préambule,” the playfulness of the “Lettres dansantes,” and the wistfulness of “Promenade”? Certainly there were dazzling moments: The octaves in “Valse noble” were voiced with exquisite nuance, while “Coquette” has rarely flirted with such delicacy.

But after Matsuev smashed through the concluding “Marche des ‘Davidsbündler’ contre les Philistins” at a stupefying pace and volume, the overall impression was that the kaleidoscopic variety of the score had been ironed out by a relentless virtuosity.

The second half of the program found Matsuev on home ground with Russian masters. In Tchaikovsky’s atmospheric Méditation (Op. 72, No. 5) and Dumka (Op. 59), Matsuev played with yearning narrative drive.

Two vividly rendered Rachmaninoff preludes (Op. 32,
No. 12 and Op. 23, No. 5) set
the stage for the composer’s volatile Second Sonata. Playing Rachmaninoff’s pared down 1931 revision, Matsuev gave its frequent climaxes a cataclysmic
fury, and his sound had a thrillingly liquid sweep. But the heroics of the closing pages would have been even more impressive had Matsuev reined in his energies earlier in the sonata — and throughout the evening.

All in all, then, a frustrating talent. Matsuev’s fingers can do absolutely anything. But until he learns to temper a dangerous taste for volume and speed, his pianism will exhilarate and disappoint in equal measure.

The pianist responded to the audience’s tumultuous acclaim with five encores, including volcanic renditions of Scriabin’s
D-sharp minor étude (Op. 8,
No. 12) and Liszt’s tenth Transcendental Étude.

Seth Herbst can be reached at sherbst@fas.harvard.edu.
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