Unknown Rachmaninov

Denis Matsuev (RCA 88697155912)

Release Date: December 3, 2007 4 stars

Denis Matsuev: Unknown RachmaninovYoung Russian Denis Matsuev's fourth disc for RCA is an all Rachmaninov affair. Recorded with the support of the Serge Rachmaninov Foundation, it has two main selling points. First, it was recorded on Rachmaninov's own Steinway, housed at his Swiss villa; second, it contains two premiere recordings. The new works are a recently discovered Fugue in D minor (1891) and the piano version of the Suite for Orchestra in D minor (1891). These rarities are flanked by a handful of preludes and etudes-tableaux, plus the rip-roaring second sonata, Op.36.

The first thing to note is that Rachmaninov's own Steinway is not essentially very different from any other modern Steinway. Mikhail Pletnev released a disc recorded on it several years ago and here there is very little that's remarkable about the sound itself. However, it does seem to have a slightly percussive edge – at least how it is captured by the RCA engineers – but nothing that is at all disturbing to modern ears. It might also have something to do with Matsuev's unashamedly 'big' playing. But then again, much of this is 'big' music which would suffer greatly from an approach with even the slightest hint of apology.

The most substantial new work is the suite which has, according to the booklet, a 'tangled' history. The original orchestral version (now lost) was written as a training exercise but shelved due to the lack of suitable forces in the conservatoire's orchestra, so Rachmaninov created the piano only version. This version was discovered in a Moscow library and, despite missing its title page, was verified as being by the composer. It's set out in four movements, the first opens with a sequence of four powerful chords before launching right in to a passionate theme, stated with all guns blazing. Although this big theme makes several reappearances, it soon dissolves; there's no shortage of lyricism here, or in the lento second movement.

Much of the writing is yet to be stamped with Rachmaninov's character and although there are several stirring and passionate melodies, they're not spiced up with the kind of musical ingredients that the composer would introduce later. It can sound at times, especially in the final two movements, like some of the more generalised musings of so many now forgotten Romantic pianist-composers of the period – a supercharged mixture of Chopin and Liszt. Matsuev's performance makes as good a case as possible for the work, though, and features some playing of blistering virtuosity.

The other premiere recording is of the Fugue in D minor (1891), written as an exercise for Arensky. I found myself double checking the track listing since I was, frankly, expecting something dry, academic and dull. Instead, we have a virtuosic study in contrapuntal writing that wouldn't seem too out of place among the later piano works.

For the rest of the disc, Matsuev's performances have to stand comparison with other great pianists past and present. And it sounds on this evidence as though he has little to fear. The fast movements of the second sonata, for example, are dispatched at a thrilling level of intensity and with rock-solid technique. He has a movingly straightforward manner with the lyrical episodes that seems, in the best way, old-fashioned.

His approach makes for powerful accounts of three etudes-tableaux and the Prelude in G minor Op.23 No.5. Only in the final piece, Prelude in G Sharp Minor Op.31 no.12, does Matseuv's approach not quite convince. This piece is more mercurial and delicate and it sounds as though that side of the composer's character doesn't come quite as easily to the pianist.

In sum then this is a fine disc featuring some very powerful playing by Matsuev. The new music deserves to be heard and receives performances that it would be hard to better and the better-known fillers are no less expertly played. Highly recommended.

By Hugo Shirley

Denis Matsuev presents a programme of 'Unknown Rachmaninov' at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 4th December 2007, where he is also joined by the Russian National Orchestra in the composer's first piano concerto.