Few soloists know conductor Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra better than Russian pianist Denis Matsuev. The 1998 winner of the International Tchaikovsky Competition, Matsuev has collaborated with the Mariinsky for more than 10 years and appeared on several of its recordings. Perhaps most amazing, he has played 34 different piano concertos with the orchestra, the house ensemble of St. Petersburg’s famed Mariinsky Theatre, which has a rich history that dates back more than two centuries.
They will be reunited when the Mariinsky Orchestra performs here Nov. 8 in an SCP Orchestra Series concert. The performance is part of a 13-city North American tour that includes stops in six venues in California as well as New York, Toronto and Kansas City, Mo.
Matsuev, 42, describes the venerable Mariinsky as a flexible orchestra with a natural sound, an improvisatory spirit and a “truly unique universalism.” While the group is obviously at home in its native Russian repertoire, it also excels in other works across a broad geographical and chronological spectrum. “This orchestra is of the highest professional level,” the pianist said via e-mail. “There are several generations of musicians who participate in this orchestra, and there are a lot of young musicians who have joined, and they are the source of inspiration for me. Every time we are on stage together, I feel so happy and enjoy the great pleasure of creation.”
He reserved particular praise for Gergiev, the orchestra’s indefatigable leader. The conductor was named music director of the Mariinsky Theatre in 1988 and became its artistic and general director eight years later with the responsibility of overseeing not just the orchestra but the venue’s opera and ballet companies as well. In addition, he serves as chief conductor of the Munich Philharmonic and artistic director of the White Nights Festival in St. Petersburg, and maintains a demanding international guest-conducting schedule.
“I perceive him as an elder brother,” Matsuev said. “We even compete with each other” — unofficially, of course — “about who will do more concerts in one year. Sometimes I have the impression that Gergiev has the ability to control time and even to stop it. When he performs with a soloist, it looks like he foresees the soloist’s every slight movement, and this gives a soloist the feeling of absolute understanding.”
It was Gergiev who ultimately persuaded Matsuev to tackle Sergei Prokofiev’s toweringly difficult Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 16, which he will perform with the Mariinsky Orchestra in Chicago. “Several times in the past, he advised me: ‘You should play this concerto. It seems like it was written especially for you. It’ll become one of the most important works in your repertoire,’” the pianist said.
But Matsuev hesitated. He was not sure of his approach to the piece, despite his admiration for the concerto. Prokofiev completed the work in 1913, but the first version was lost in a fire after the Russian Revolution. The composer reconstructed it in 1923 but conceded that his second take was very different from the original. “For me, it is Prokofiev’s Everest,” Matsuev said. “In dramatic effect and intensity of emotions, it takes first place among all piano concertos. The first movement is really powerful — it’s like a volcano!”
The pianist’s vacillation ended in 2015 when Gergiev called and told him that posters were already printed, and Matsuev was scheduled to perform the work with the Mariinsky Orchestra in Munich as part of a complete presentation of Prokofiev’s five concertos. “There were just six weeks to go,” he said. “So I could not say no. And to my surprise, it worked. This concerto has been on the tips of my fingers ever since.”
Later this year, Matsuev will release an album with what he calls the “two twos”: Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and Sergei Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2. “This is one of the greatest piano concertos of the 20th century and one of the most brilliant concertos by Prokofiev,” he said. “I am really pleased that we are going to perform it during this tour.”