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Pianist debut not all that auspicious

New York
Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
01/30/2017 -  
Domenico Scarlatti: Sonatas in B Minor, K. 27, in F Minor, K. 466, in D Minor, K. 1, & in D Minor, K. 141
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 26 in E-flat Major, Op. 81a, “Les Adieux”
Sergei Prokofiev: Piano Sonata No. 2 in D Minor, Op. 14
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Morceaux de fantaisie, opus 3: 1. Elégie in E-flat Minor & 2. Prelude in C-sharp Minor – Fragments – Etudes-tableaux in E-flat Major, Op. 33, No. 4, & in B Minor, Op. 39, No. 4 & No. 9
Franz Liszt: Totentanz

Dmitry Masleev (piano)

D. Masleev (© Julien Jourdes)

A couple of weeks before Dmitry Masleev appeared in Carnegie Hall where he made his New York debut as a winner of Tchaikovsky Piano Competition, on Medici tv I came across a video of the recital presented by the Munich Philharmonie where Mr. Masleev and an American, George Li, the 2nd prize winner of the same Competition, performed several of Prokofiev’s piano sonatas. This was an intriguing concept and to this day I don’t know what prompted powers that be in Munich (I think it was Mr. Gergiev idea) to juxtapose those two pianists. Mr. Masleev played Sonatas No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3, Mr.Li Sonatas No. 4 and No. 6. At that time it seemed to me that it was Mr. Li who sounded like a real artist and Mr. Masleev like a very diligent, competent competition player. After hearing just a few measures of Mr. Masleev Carnegie recital, there was no longer doubt in my mind as I was absolutely sure that something erroneous must have gone in Moscow during the 2015 Tchaikovsky Competition.

Already in the first of the four sonatas by Scarlatti Mr. Masleev showed an alarming indifference to a fact that Scarlatti was not written with a concert grand piano in mind. By that I don’t only mean that the composer who wrote those little sonatas for the harpsichord doesn’t perhaps need a constant layer of the sustaining pedal. That would be only a part of the problem. But when Scarlatti in the first of his sonatas, the one in B-minor, repeats a one measure four times – granted: not a moment of his greatest inspiration! – should the pianist perhaps at least try to differentiate it, since it is possible on the grand piano as opposite of the harpsichord? Then we already encountered another characteristic of this pianist: the matter of timing and letting the music breathe, something which alas he has not mastered yet. There was a constant feeling of phrases running into each other and the prevailing sense of sameness. One has to give however Mr. Masleev credit for executing all sorts of trills with astonishing evenness and his repeated notes in the concluding Sonata in D minor were very impressive indeed.

Then came Beethoven Sonata in E flat known as Les Adieux. Here Mr. Masleev demonstrated again his art of, what I call for my personal use, “playing about nothing”. It was more of the same: a combination of nearly faultless execution – and this sonata presents some technical problems for all the pianists! – and not much else. The tempi were rather on a fast side but as before there was no breathing space between the phrases. I could not find any interesting, attention-grabbing ideas, was bothered by the constant sense of a rush and a mechanical approach.

The first part of the program was concluded with a work that – on paper at least – should be a strong point in Mr. Masleev repertory: Prokofiev Sonata No. 2. It was OK as far as playing the right notes at the right time was concerned. It was grim, it had no smile: even when Prokofiev music sounds sometimes brutal, there’s always an underpinning of a grin, of a twinkle. That was, to my ears at least, missing. What we had instead was another example of a relentless, heavy handed approach where lack of charm dominated. I guess one of the problems our pianist demonstrated was that too often his chords all sounded with the same intensity, making proper balance between the voices problematic. The sound in general was more brutish than incisive.

It was thus not a reassuring sight to see a few hard-core piano aficionados leaving the hall during intermission.

Things improved a bit in the group of Rachmaninov works, though even there I could not really detect a beautiful vocal line in the “Elégie”, or a sense of holding time back in the famous Prelude in C Sharp minor or a truly meaningful buildup of tension in the three of the Etudes-Tableaux, which lacked the rhythmic incisiveness and sharpness. If there was any excitement, it was of the brutal, unremitting kind. The memory of the December performances of similar repertory by another Russian born pianist, Boris Giltburg, was not erased.

How well Mr. Masleev can play the piano was demonstrated in the fiendishly difficult arrangement of Liszt’s Totentanz, most often heard in the version for piano and orchestra. Here the pianist tossed off with utter ease all sort of pyrotechnical demands that Liszt piles up on his performer. The command of the keyboard was unquestionable but even so there was a sense of conquering difficulties without much elegance or grace. Was I perhaps expecting too much?

There were four encores and here I wish our pianist constrained himself to just first two, both by Tchaikovsky: the “Lullaby” in A-flat Major and the “Dance Scene” in C Major from Eighteen Pieces, Op. 72. The listener with a long memory would not mistake these readings for Mikhail Pletnev, who so magnificently played this Op. 72 during one of his New York recitals several years back. And then, making this listener even more assured in his already doubtful assessment, Mr. Masleev offered a sure-fingered but totally mischaracterized version of the Mendelssohn Scherzo from the Midsummer Night’s Dream arranged by Rachmaninov. There was again no doubt in my mind Mr. Masleev has not paid enough attention to truly great performances of this piece, starting with Rachmaninov himself and continuing with Rachmaninov’s close friend Benno Moiseiwitsch. I am not advocating imitation of their versions, but at least grasping the essence of the work which this Russian just plowed through. And we didn’t gain much insight into our soloist by hearing his high-school level rendition of Bach’s “Sarabande” from the Partita No. 1. Well, maybe it was a nice throwback to the times before the really reliable editions of Bach scores were available and scholarship of performing Bach was still in diapers.

If reviewers were allowed to give performers advice, mine would be: young man, you already possess great ability to play piano, now go and study music with some great artist who would probably set you straight in just a few meetings. I hope to hear Mr. Masleev next after one of those encounters.

Roman Markowicz



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