Matsuev/Russian National Orchestra/Liss, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

If you rediscover lost works, promote them: the young Russian pianist Denis Matsuev has backed his CD Unknown Rachmaninov with a concert including its pice de rsistance Rachmaninov's piano version of the Suite for Orchestra he wrote when he was 18. He was a conscientious student, desperate for Tchaikovsky's approval: when the conservatoire orchestra proved not to have enough instruments, he rewrote it for himself to play. Whether he performed it still not known.

Matsuev spent the first half of his concert proving he had an artistic hot-line to his great predecessor. Rachmaninov's First Piano Concerto is more raw and less focused than the better-known ones which followed, and the orchestral playing under conductor Dmitry Liss could have been more subtly shaded, but Matsuev made the best of it, answering a treacly string statement with a limpid solo. His later elaborations had admirable precision, as had his melodic leadership as the movement progressed. His cadenza was arrestingly beautiful with bags of power, and he dispatched the final movement with exuberant assurance.

But despite his artistry the "new" work proved underwhelming. The opening of the Allegro had Rachmaninov's big-boned hallmark, but its middle section was more like Chopin. Matsuev allowed the slow movement to breathe expressively, but it had no magic. The next movement was a minuet sounding like Smetana, and the concluding Allegro was a gallop which might have been written by any late 19th-century salon composer. Matsuev infused the minuet with charm but could not save the work from banality.

So what? Rachmaninov was learning his craft and finding his voice, and this was an apprentice piece. The revised version of his Second Piano Sonata, with which Matsuev followed it, reflected his genius in full flower, and here Matsuev's playing was masterly. He has the rare gift of letting notes expand in a surrounding stillness. In his hands, the volcanic power of the final movement was under total control. With three perfectly-executed encores, he sent us out on a high: watch out for his next appearance.

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