Denis Matsuev: Three 20th Century Concerti

Showcasing an inspiring recent piano recording.

This month it’s a pleasure to be shining the spotlight on a concerto recording for the first time on Pianodao: to be precise, DG’s new disc of concertante works by Shostakovich, Schnittke and Lutosławski, brought to us by Deutsche Grammophon and performed stunningly by Denis Matsuev (piano) and the Kammerorchester Wein-Berlin.

The three works included in this outstanding recording are all very much of their epoch, but rooted firmly in musical language and conventions that make them accessible to any classical music lover.

They are:

  1. Dmitri Shostakovich: Concerto No.1 for Piano, Trumpet and String Orchestra Op.35 (1933)
  2. Alfred Schnittke: Concerto for Piano and String Orchestra (1979)
  3. Witold Lutosławski: Variations on a Theme of Paganini (1941)

Let’s take it for a spin…

Levity and Invention in Turbulent Times

Each of the three works featured in this recording must be described as a virtuosic tour de force; as compositions, they are prime examples of their respective composers’ ability to fuse past and present, severity and humour, a light touch with serious intent.

In an engaging booklet note, Walter Weidringer explains that Shostakovich’s First Concerto dates from that earlier period in the composer’s life, before the prohibitive machinery of the Stalinist state began to interfere in musical life:

“Composed and premiered in 1933, it encapsulates in a nutshell the mercurial, motley variedness of a time in which everything (still) seemed possible, in a casual, impertinent, but never superficial idiom”.

Scored for piano, string orchestra and trumpet, the latter (performed in this recording by Gábor Tarkövi) takes a significant role, the virtuosic interplay between piano and trumpet making this essentially a “double concerto” in the Baroque sense.

The four movements follow a neo-classical scheme, and bring together a dizzying array of influences ranging from the composer’s Russian precursors, through Viennese classicism to 20th century rhythmic intensity, martial allusions and subtle jazz tinges; as Weidringer puts it, this is music which toys,

“only a stone’s throw from the barrack yard to the vaudeville or to the circus arena.”

Alfred Schnittke’s Concerto for Piano and Strings calls upon no lesser a barrage of musical influences past and present, from stark chord clusters to the raw, earthy tonality of a Russian orthodox-inspired chorale, and from dodecaphonic series to Albereti bass accompaniment, waltz rhythms, and even a hidden B-A-C-H motif.

This musical smorgasbord mutates to deliver a sonic and emotional punch that is visceral indeed, soloist and chamber orchestra often pitted against on another as if in mortal combat: this is at times angry music for smashing stuff to. But ultimately, the conflict of the piece resolves in resignation, artistic integrity flowering into moments of truly sublime beauty.

If the Shostakovich piece ends with near-hilarious ebullience, and the Schnittke work becalmed, Lutosławski’s Variations on a Theme of Paganini (yes, that theme again!) bring us full circle.

Originally written for two pianos, the work here appears in an orchestration by Alexander Warenberg for piano, strings and percussion, an arrangement whose spacial sonorities and dynamic textures owe much to Bartók. The variations are whisked before us with almost unseemly haste, each its own pocket of brilliance, culminating in a climax pinned to a delicious harmonic twist.

Composed at the height of the Nazi suppression of the composer’s native Poland, this truly fabulous piece is without doubt an astonishing triumph of levity and invention during a time of dark turbulence.

The Performances and Recordings

The programming of these three works together, hewn from such similar stone, is a masterstroke in itself, but would be as nought were the performances lacklustre. Happily though, they are never less than stunning.

Since winning the 11th International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow aged 23 in 1998, Russian pianist Denis Matsuev has enjoyed a widely acclaimed career, both in the concert hall and recording studio, previously recording for (among others) RCA Red Seal, Sony BMG and the Mariinsky Label.

Since its formation in 2008 the Kammerorchester Wien-Berlin (here comprising 21 string players and two percussionists) has drawn players from the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonic Orchestras to perform and record music often neglected within the symphonic repertoire. Under the artistic direction of Rainer Honeck they have developed a reputation for exceptionally subtle music making, and have collaborated with many of the world’s finest soloists.

Perhaps it is the chamber-music ethos of the Kammerorchester which best serves them in this recording. All three works require an instinctive and deeply communicative approach to music making, the interplay between soloist and orchestra being a prominent and decisive feature.

It is particularly interesting to compare Matsuev’s assimilation into the ensemble here compared to his previous recording of the Shostakovich Concerto with the Mariinsky Orchestra and Valery Gergiev, a decidedly grander affair in which tempi seem unsettled and the overall tone overtly Romantic. Here the work is airborne, effervescent, scintillating, and the timing as tight as it gets. Crucially, it feels as though soloist and orchestra are playing for the same team, not in opposition.

Matsuev’s astonishing virtuosity finds a perfect match and foil in the Kammerorchester Wien-Berlin, and I can’t easily recall a concerto recording in which such joyous musical sharing between soloist and orchestra have been so intoxicating and grippingly on display.

The recordings were made in Vienna (Shostakovich) and Raiding (Schnittke, Lutosławski) in the autumn of 2015, produced and edited by Philipp Nedel, engineered and mastered by Martin Kistner. The clarity is superb, every detail of the texture admirably highlighted, while the piano sound is full but crisp.

Appearing in a standard CD case, the product includes a well-presented booklet giving full details and including Weidringer’s article in English, German and Russian.


This is a recording that is quite simply brimming with sparkle from start to finish, thanks to the alchemical coming together of great music, brilliant musicians and outstanding engineering.

Taken as a whole, the programme offers a fabulous introduction to these concertante works from the mid-twentieth century; those familiar with them are sure to be impressed with these mercurial interpretations, while newcomers to them will I suspect be entranced and quickly won over.

The greatest joy of this album, for me, is in the infectiously communicative musicianship delivered by all involved in these extraordinary and finely-judged performances. Bravo!

Available online from Amazon UK here.

All products featured on Pianodao are independently selected by Andrew Eales.
However, when you buy something through the site’s retail links, Pianodao may earn a small commission, without affecting the price you pay.

The blog exists thanks to generous DONATIONS from readers like you.
Regular supporters are welcome to join the TEA ROOM COMMUNITY.

Never miss another post – receive free email notifications:

Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, published author and composer based in Milton Keynes UK, where he runs a successful private teaching studio.

Please leave a Comment:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.