An interview with Denis Matsuev

Ahead of his solo performances of Prokofiev's Second and Third Piano Concertos with the LSO in autumn 2019, we caught up with pianist Denis Matsuev to talk about the great Russian composers, performing with Gianandrea Noseda and the magic of the stage.

This article was first published in October 2019.

How did you first get into music?

My parents are musicians, so I was surrounded by music from birth. When I was three years old I walked up to a piano for the first time and repeated a melody I had just heard on the weather forecast with a single finger. I’ve been involved in music since then.

MatsuevAnd now you regularly perform the likes of Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto.

Yes, I’ve been performing Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto for just five years now. I decided to learn it on Valery Gergiev’s advice, who was absolutely sure that this music was right for me in character and in spirit. We even recorded a CD of this concerto. It is a truly challenging work for a pianist; emotionally intense and tragic, this is Prokofiev’s premonition of Revolution. The only way to perform it is to give yourself over to it completely – I usually lose 3kg during a performance!

You’ve been described as the ideal latter-day soul mate to Rachmaninoff. What does Rachmaninoff mean to you?

When it comes to S.V. Rachmaninoff, I always think that, without him, we pianists would feel orphaned. He is very special to me! I still go to Villa Senar (the composer’s Swiss estate) to play his piano and work with the Serge Rachmaninoff Foundation. I’ve done a lot together with the Foundation and with the late Alexander Rachmaninoff: I recorded a CD of Rachmaninoff’s unknown works on his own grand piano and recorded all of his concertos with Gergiev. We’re releasing a CD with Rachmaninoff’s Fourth Concerto soon and we’ll be releasing a complete box set of Rachmaninoff’s concertos.

'I always think that, without [Rachmaninoff], we pianists would feel orphaned.'

What generally goes through your head as you step on stage?

It is magic! Being on stage enriches and inspires me, the energy that comes from the audience has a miraculous healing effect. I cannot exist without a stage. I perform about 265 concerts a year and each is a moment of great happiness.

Just this month you joined the LSO on tour at the George Enescu Festival, conducted by Noseda. How was that?

I have a long-standing friendship with the LSO. Together we’ve played a huge number of concerts, particularly under the maestro Gergiev, covering lots of different repertoire, including some lesser-performed works – Szymanowski’s Fourth Symphony Concertante, for example.

I love the LSO, it’s a unique orchestra of the highest world-class quality. The Orchestra doesn't just play the notes, they create music – they are happy to improvise and find new approaches during a concert. There is a very special creative atmosphere there and a feeling of freedom that I really value. I have a lot of friends in the Orchestra and I look forward to performing with them every time I have the chance to.

As for Gianandrea Noseda, he is a great friend. We’ve performed together many times with the greatest orchestras of the world. Performing Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto at the Enescu Festival with Noseda was a moment of pure happiness, so I am looking forward to our concerts in London in October and November.

Matsuev Noseda

Your upcoming concerts with the LSO are part of Noseda’s Russian Roots series. What is it about music from the 20th-century Russian composers like Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich that continues to enthral audiences?

These composers are the geniuses of the 20th century, their music will exist for hundreds of years. In my opinion, the biggest intrigue and pleasure is that no matter how many times you’ve played their concertos, it always feels like the first time. This is a distinctive feature of brilliant music when despite the huge number of pre-existing interpretations from different orchestras and conductors, the music pushes you to find something new and create music as from a clean slate. You can spend a lifetime learning these concertos, feeling how you change inside with each different interpretation, and a lot depends on who is on-stage with you at that moment.

When I’m with the LSO and Noseda, there is a feeling of freedom, unpredictability and spontaneity, which I value a lot. I always know that I can count on support from the Orchestra and the conductor, leaving me free and able to offer different interpretations. Noseda is an expert in Russian music (his work at the Mariinsky Theatre has certainly had some bearing there). He knows the entire Russian repertoire brilliantly. Plus he speaks Russian!

'You can spend a lifetime learning these concertos, feeling how you change inside with each different interpretation.'

Finally, can you tell us something we might not know about you?

I find inspiration in my home town of Irkutsk and Lake Baikal, as in the name of my annual September festival, Stars on the Baikal. When my musician friends come to my native city, I always invite them to dive into the Baikal. It is cold, usually 9 degrees, but it gives you a lot of energy, without which it is almost impossible to perform Prokofiev’s Second or Third Piano Concertos.

We will be broadcasting Denis Matsuev's performance of Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto from Thursday 31 October 2019 on Thursday 21 May 2020. Find out more on our #AlwaysPlaying page.