Interview with Denis Matsuev

On 8 October the Russian pianist Denis Matsuev will start his residency as Capell-Viruos with a piano recital at the Semperoper. Previously he was interviewed by the Dresden journalist Michael Ernst.

Denis Matsuev, you are this season the Capell-Virtuos of the Staatskapelle Dresden. Why do you do this? I mean, as a soloist in great demand, as a leader of some music festivals your diary should be more than fulfilled?

This is great honour to be the Capell-Virtuos this season in Dresden, to take part in different concerts: recital, chamber concerts and concerts with orchestra and maestro Thielemann. It is the great happiness. We are going to perform together many times not only in Dresden, but also in other cities of Europe and Russia as well, which is really important to me, as Russian audience will have an opportunity to hear one of the best orchestras in the world. Yes, my schedule is really tight, but when such orchestra with rich history, original style and great traditions invites you to come, you cannot say no. 

Which are the most important projects in this season together with this orchestra?

Dresden concerts, concerts in Europe (Paris, Lucerne, Baden Baden) and three concerts in Russia (Moscow – Great Hall of Conservatory, Saint Petersburg – Mariinsky 2 and Kaliningrad – Old Cathedral). We will perform F. Liszt Piano Concert #2, one of my favorite Liszt’s concerts, romantic, melodic, with great cello solo. It demands absolute understanding between orchestra and soloist. So I am looking forward to it!

Your start in Dresden was an open air concert together with Maestro Placido Domingo, a very special experience?

Yes, it was indeed. And it was absolutely unexpected. My schedule was already closed for new events, I had only one and a half day for me to rest in this period of time. But I enjoy this type of concerts – open air. It gathers a lot of people, who would not be able to fit in a concert hall. I took part in such events all over the world – at Hollywood Bowl, Ravinia in the USA, in Berlin, in Russia on the Baikal, in Moscow, etc. The acoustics here is not what classical musician usually expects. And a lot of success depends on a sound producer here. And there was a brilliant sound producer in Dresden during that open air concert, so I had a feeling that we were performing in a concert hall.

This type of concerts unites a lot of people, who want to listen to classical music. We played one of the most popular piano concerts in the world – Tchaikovsky’s Piano concerto #1. And the atmosphere was great, very warm and welcoming!

Actually it was a start of this season in Dresden. I love this city, I had a chance to come here for many times, I talked to people here and I feel that this city gives a lot of energy for creativity and music improvisations.

This Sunday you will start this guest-season with a recital not only with Russian music - Tchaikovsky and Prokoviev - but also with Beethoven. Please describe your relationship to those composers.

Yes, I am going to perform Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons. I’ve been performing this cycle for many years and glad to present it in Dresden as it is not fair that this wonderful music is not popular enough yet. Many perform parts of it, but not all at once. I believe this cycle presents the essence of Tchaikovsky from all his sides. It amazes me how he visualizes each month by means of music. Actually it is a really difficult task to play this cycle in its entirety, because you live through the whole year (12 months) during performance. There are quotes of Russian writers written before every month music piece, and you can understand the essence of each month from them. I hope that concert booklet will include them as well and Dresden audience will have a chance to read it before listening to the Seasons.

As for Beethoven’s Sonata #31, I’ve been playing it for a year already, and I feel that our relations with this music are at their peak. I believe, this is one of the most genius music pieces by Beethoven. It is about fight between Life and Death, but Life wins in the end, which is really important to me. I have not learnt only six Beethoven’s sonatas, so I plan to do it in the nearest two years and will play the whole cycle of sonatas. Beethoven’s sonatas are brilliant and one can devote his whole life to learning and playing them.

Prokofiev’s Sonata #7 is one of my favorite; it is a masterpiece in expressiveness, storyline and harmony on par with his Piano concerto #2, which I perform and have recently recorded on CD.

You have won the Tchaikovsky competition in 1998. Was this success the opener to your worldwide career?

My life’s changed completely. It was something very sudden and exceptional. Among those congratulating me with my victory was legendary British composer Andrew Lloyd Webber. I had already met him a few years earlier. He sent me a fax saying 'I had no doubts.'
The Tchaikovsky Competition winner brand is a big responsibility and also opportunity to become a concert pianist. It gives you a possibility to perform in the most famous concert halls with famous conductors and orchestras and to record in the best studios. A crazy concert schedule began and I was ready for it. I had gone to many tours before that, supported by the New Names charity fund. If you compare Tchaikovsky competition 1998 to Tchaikovsky Competition 2011 for example, you will see, that online broadcast turned all participants into stars in one moment, they all got invitations to different festivals and concert halls, even if they did not win. In 1998 it was not that easy. That time the winning was only first step to success and I understood that I need to work hard to succeed.

You grew up in a family of musicians. Which role played classical music in your birthplace Irkutsk?

The atmosphere at home was full of music. My great-grandfather played the violin, my grandfathers and grandmothers played the guitar and the accordion. I can play ten different instruments myself. Not so professional as I play the piano, but I can play them. Mother taught at the pedagogical institute and the music school. Father, a pianist and composer, was head of the music section at the drama theater and also worked at a music school. We constantly listened to music, both on records and live – my parents played and had concerts at home. When I was three, I managed to play the tune from the weather forecast on TV. And it was when my parents saw that I could try a career in music. I have an amazing ear for music. I can pick up any song in a second and learn any sonata in a few days, but I’ve never practiced for ten hours. I was a totally normal boy – I played hockey, football and broke my arm a few times.

Later your family moved to Moscow. Because of the higher developed level in a cultural sense?

It is more not about Irkutsk level in a cultural sense, but about my future as a musician. That decision was made by the whole family. My mother and father showed true heroism. The future looked so unclear that it will be hard for you to imagine. Nobody could say for certain if something good would come of that risky venture. My father and mother were perfectly aware that I had already overgrown the level of a local music school. I needed a fresh impetus. Fifteen is a critical age. Sadly, many potentially talented musicians stop developing precisely because they do not make a step forward at this crucial moment. You have to overpower your own self, if you wish to achieve something serious in the future. Moscow Central music school was and now remains the best school in Russia and I needed to grow in its atmosphere to develop my skills and achieve something in my life. There were a lot of talented children from all over the world, and if we list all its graduates, we will see, that it is the best place to start if you want to become a world famous musician.

The so called “Russian school” is well known. Only because of their history or also for actual reasons?

I believe that a real talent has no nationality at all. But if we talk about Russian piano school, it still remains unique and due to that our children are true virtuoso performers. Our system of musical education has always been very special. Piano art is very popular and Russian Piano School – is something we are proud of, this is our national brand.

Musicians who are Russian, or are taught by Russian teachers, still on the top of the list of leading international pianists and win a lot of international piano competitions. For me Russian piano school is about flawless technique, silky touch and an intensive emotional expressiveness. It is about making piano (instrument with keyboard sounded by hammers) sing, it is Nikolai Rubinstein’s, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s, Emil Gilels’s, Sviatoslav Richter’s, Vladimir Horowitz’s, Van Cliburn’s (who was a student of R. Levina, graduate from Moscow Conservatory) manner of performing.

Fortunately, we have a lot of young talents in Russia. There are a lot of 12-13 years old pianists who can become great musicians. I am artistic director of several children competitions and the president of New Names fund, so I can witness this trend myself, our Russian school alive and feels great.

A very important experience was your world premiere with the „unknown“ music of Rachmaninov - on his own Steinway! Are you a discoverer?

Yes, you may say so. It all happened in Paris at the Champs-Elysees theater. Alexandre Rachmaninoff came to my dressing room to bring me two scores – suites and fugues. And he addressed me with an offer I could not reject. How would I like the idea of recording these works on the composer’s own piano? In exchange he asked me to do him a little favor – to stop smoking, because Sergei Rachmaninoff was a heavy smoker and died of lung cancer. I put out my cigarette at once and has not lit another one ever since. It was a truly priceless gift.

These were student works. They say Rachmaninoff sent them to Tchaikovsky to hear his opinion on them, as he respected Peyotr Ilych very much. And Tchaikovsky’s secretary simply lost them. Only several years ago personnel at the Glinka Museum found them. It was an urtext, you know, just notes. And not only did I get these unknown pieces, but also performed them on Rachmaninoff’s own grand piano in his Senar villa in Switzerland.

It is a unique instrument. Even from the technical point of view it is larger than a standard grand piano. It’s about ten centimeters longer. A gift to the composer from the Steinway Family. Its sound is incomparable. None of the modern pianos is good enough for achieving the same effect.

When Alexander Rachmaninoff brought the piano from Senar to Lucerne where I could make a good recording, it was the first time that this piano left Senar and was on the stage of the concert hall.

By the way, now the Serge Rachmaninoff Foundation has promised that Rachmaninoff’s villa Senar will be open to visitors and a museum of our great Russian composer will be created there. I am certain that Villa Senar will become a pilgrimage center for music lovers.

Some times you also like jazz music?

My father used to collect recordings of outstanding jazz musicians. I listened to them all my life as far as I can remember myself and I always tried to improvise. I like it and I do not see any reason why I should renounce this pleasure. The ability to improvise is really important for me. And I came to know that for classical music, there is not only interpretation, but room for improvisation as well. Whether it is an extremely well known piece, like something of Stravinsky, or something quite unknown, there is room to create something new in performance. I feel like I am born again during a concert. Of course, the notes do not change, but everything else—the tempo, the intervals between notes—everything can be changed. A great piece of music has the ability to keep re-inventing itself, which is why great music truly never dies. But I must underline, that I play jazz with the hands of a classical musician. I am not a jazz musician. Participating in concerts with jazz musicians is my tribute to this great musical genre.

What about the music by your father, a composer as well?

In the late 1980s my father was a prominent figure of cultural life in Irkutsk. He authored music for many local stage productions. When we moved to Moscow my father offered his services to Moscow theaters, gave private lessons, and worked as a teacher at an amateur music class at a children’s creative center. He is versatile talent. He is a pianist, he wrote music for musical plays and drama theatre. His music is original, melodic with Skryabin’s influence. He is a teacher for me first of all and he still gives me lessons. He is a wise adviser, the best adviser for me.

Together with the Staatskapelle you will perform the second Liszt concerto under the direction of Christian Thielemann also in Moscow and St. Petersburg. How does it feel to come with a foreign orchestra to Russia?

I am a happy person, because I’ve performed with great number of best orchestras and conductors in the world. It happens so that I have my own subscription in Moscow conservatory and I always managed to invite a lot of famous conductors and orchestras in Russia. Russian audience in Moscow and Saint Petersburg is very well educated in music and is looking forward to hear the Staatskapelle under baton of Christian Thielemann. It is great happiness that this orchestra comes to Russia.

Your very last concert during this Dresden season will take place to the International Shostakovitch Festival in Gohrisch. Which importance has this composer for you and your working live?

Every time I come to the stage to perform both Shostakovich piano concertos with orchestra, it is a great pleasure to me, because these are diamonds of piano repertoire. They are bright, sparkling, profound, but like in everything written by Shostakovich with an intelligent subtle taunt. I adore unique slow parts in both concertos. I am going to perform Piano concerto #1 by Shostakovich with maestro Temirkanov. This concerto is full of Shostakovich’s unique sense of humor. Temirkanov call it “Shostakovich’s Great Mockery”. Shostakovich himself played this concerto masterly and with great passion. I love this concerto. I will never forget the day when Maxim Shostakovich, son of the composer, came to me after my concert and said, that my performance was perfect, that it was exactly as his father saw it. That was a great honor and the highest compliment for me. We later went to Maxims home and I had a chance to play Dmitry Shostakovich’s piano, Maxim showed his father’s posters, music scores, letters. It was a great opportunity to get in touch with this great composer’s art. And it is great, that Dresden honors Shostakovich so much.

Interview: Michael Ernst