The name of last Tuesday’s Hollywood Bowl concert was “Three Russian Masters.” That’s Prokofiev, Stravinsky, and Shostakovich, whose music made up the program that night, by the way. But it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the audience got to hear a fourth Russian master: pianist Denis Matsuev.

Denis Matsuev © CAMI
Denis Matsuev
© CAMI

The first half of the program was centered around him. Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto no. 1, the composer’s acidulous send-up of Romantic excess, was given a driving, manic reading. The force of Matsuev’s pianism—well equipped with thundering octaves and rapid-fire finger work that seem to never flag in stamina—heavily underlined the grotesque humor of the concerto. But he is equipped with more than techniques of raw power in his pianistic arsenal. His gilded tone allowed the melting lyricism peering under the concerto’s thorny façade to blossom with striking intensity; exposing the Romantic heart beating inside the enfant terrible.

Guest conductor Krzysztof Urbański, who made his Hollywood Bowl debut in this concert, was Matsuev’s fine accompanist. He gave the pianist plenty of room in his spotlight moments, while asserting the orchestra’s role as an equal partner.

Three movements from Stravinsky’s Petrushka followed, played on solo piano—a hyperactive, virtuosic rearrangement of excerpts from the ballet. Matsuev again unfurled the full strength of his playing, evoking from his piano the might of the full orchestra. The closing movement—with its cries of children, the lumbering of dancing bears, and the bustling of coachmen, wet nurses, and gypsies—was a living musical tapestry of folkloric spectacle. The only regret was the omission of the central “Petrushka’s Room” movement—its expressionist darkness would have been well suited to Matsuev.

The well deserved standing ovation and multiple curtain calls saw the audience rewarded with Matsuev’s tongue-in-cheek fantasy on Rossini’s “Largo al factotum” from The Barber of Seville. From it he wrought a coruscating brilliance and a deceptive ease of execution, washing over the listener like a crystalline cascade.

On the other half of the program was Shostakovich’s intensely serious and tragic Symphony no. 10, the diametric opposite of Prokofiev’s and Stravinsky’s cheekiness. And also the opposite of the usual easy-going summer concert fare, for that matter. For those in the audience expecting a frothy evening of al fresco dining and light musical showpieces, the introspective anguish of the symphony—headed by a massive, rigorously constructed 23-minute Moderato—must have been a shock. The fickle miking and acoustics of the Hollywood Bowl don’t make it easier.

Urbański met the challenges as best he could, producing an interpretation of attractive orchestral polish, though missing much of the symphony’s horror and anger. He kept a firm hand on the first movement’s structure, carefully building it from the six-note whisper in the opening bars, to the grim climax. But once there the pallor of reticence set in. The great piercing shrieks that swallow the orchestra at its peak were more grand than crushing. Brass snarls crackling behind like licks of fire were totally submerged, nearly inaudible. No better was the whirlwind Scherzo, where Urbański neutered the music’s tempestuous violence. He was on better footing in the symphony’s second half, finding wonderfully weird, gurgling sonorities in the third movement Allegretto. But even there he blunted the music’s edge with a climax that was played far too legato. The Finale’s all-consuming joy were best suited to Urbański’s talents, though the sense of hard-won victory in the coda was muted after downplaying the tragedy in the earlier movements.

He also seemed unduly fond of mugging for the camera. Urbański cuts a handsome figure on stage, no doubt. But it was hard to suppress the feeling that at times he conducted more for the audience than for his orchestra. His extended interlude in the Shostakovich between the second and third movements—where he dramatically pulled out his handkerchief, plunged his face deep into it, slowly slid it off, then wiped the sweat off his brow while looking into the sky with a pained expression, then carefully fixed his coat buttons, finally adjusting his sleeves and cuffs—were outrageously comical in their theatricality.

But he is undeniably a gifted conductor. And egomania has never been a detriment to the making of a great conductor. He has some way to go before reaching that rank. But last Tuesday showed Los Angeles an artist who is well on his way along that path.