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He calls Chicago Blackhawks goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin “a big friend of mine.” His heroes are Vladimir Horowitz and star hockey center Sergei Fedorov. Russian pianist Denis Matsuev, who has “epic technique” according to the Boston Globe, is not shy about talking sports. In a 2009 Impromptu, he told WFMT that as a youth in Siberia, he could hardly be kept indoors. He played either soccer or ice hockey “about seven hours a day. Music was second.” Speaking with a gentle Russian growl, he laughs about breaking his fingers three times, “My parents was shocked. My parents is musician, my mother and father – all pianists.”
“Sochi’s closing ceremony…[had] piano virtuoso Denis Matsuev emerge from a cloud of smoke and blast through a Rachmaninov composition like he was playing Metallica. It was amazing.”
—Alex Heigl, People magazine
Although Matsuev chose the piano over hockey, his competitive nature hasn’t softened. In 1998, he won the gold medal at the Tchaikovsky Competition.
During his 2009 visit to WFMT, Matsuev described receiving a challenge of a different kind from one whose name is Rachmaninoff: “It was two and a half years ago, grandson of Rachmaninoff – his name Alexander, Alexander Rachmaninoff – came in my concert at Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris. After my recital, he told me (very fun), he told me, ‘when you don’t smoke, I give you some present.’ I don’t smoke but maybe one cigarette after the concert…no more! I told him I never smoke, I don’t smoke, where is my present? He told me, ‘I present you new piece of Rachmaninoff – unknown piece of Rachmaninoff.’”
According to Matsuev, the piece was discovered by the “Museum of Glinka in Moscow.” Unknown until about ten years ago, the museum sent the manuscript to Alexander Rachmaninoff, grandson of the Russian composer/pianist, who in turn presented the piece as a gift to the former smoker, and piano virtuoso Denis Matsuev.
Sports metaphors work well when describing Denis Matsuev. The Los Angeles Times referred to his “daredevil intensity.” The Washington Post relayed that Matsuev “set and then broke speed and sound barriers for the instrument.” One New York Times reviewer commented: “In concert and on disc Mr. Matsuev has mostly specialized in finger-busting virtuoso pieces.”
A champion to young musicians, Matsuev has given recitals at, and brought with him distinguished artists to the Moscow Conservatory every year for nearly a decade. He’s launched music education initiatives from St. Petersburg to Siberia, and was named UNESCO 2014 Goodwill Ambassador in April.
During the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, Matsuev could be found cheering at a number of events, and participated in the opening and closing ceremonies.
The repertoire of his native Russia seems especially suited for this pianist’s temperament. Matsuev was chosen by the Rachmaninoff Foundation to record some of the composer’s unknown pieces on Rachmaninoff’s own piano, an American Steinway, in the Rachmaninoff villa on Lake Lucerne.
About Matsuev’s musical idol Vladimir Horowitz, Matsuev told WFMT, “His interpretation, his sound, his colors – everything. I like this very much. I like this style. I like this character. Every time when he go to the stage, he was ready for spectacle, for theater, for something special for the audience, because he likes audience very much – me too. Because many musicians told me that they play only for himself, for musician. But I would like to provide character, sound, music, and everything from composer to the audience.”
In his recitals, Denis Matsuev often throws a little jazz into the mix. On that he told WFMT, “Classical music my wife, and jazz my lover.”
WFMT features a recital of Denis Matsuev on Monday’s Ravinia Festival broadcast. The recital was recorded in the Martin Theatre on July 28 and features music by Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, and Stravinsky.