My introduction to Denis Matsuev was a stupendous live performance of the Paganini Rhapsody. As an encore he played Ginsburg's ''Figaro'' Fantasy and, needless to say, completely brought the house down. I was so impressed that I immediately bought a couple of his CDs - only to discover that on record he is not nearly as outstanding as live, and that the reason for that surely is the excitement of a live concert, rather than Matsuev's artistry. That said, this all-Rachmaninoff disc is one of his better achievements.
Yes, the title of this disc is very stupid. From eight works on it, only two are really unknown and receive here their first recordings. All of the rest (two preludes, three etudes, the Second Sonata) are indeed among Rachmaninoff's most well-known works.
The ''newcomers'' are one little fugue and the piano version of an orchestral suite in four movements, both composed in 1891 when Rachmaninoff was 18 and graduated from the Moscow Conservatory. The Fugue in D minor was probably a mere technical exercise given by Arensky, Rachmaninoff's teacher of harmony, and it lasts for less than two and a half minutes. However, the recording of this trifle is fully justified by one striking resemblance: at one place, just for a few seconds, the piece sounds amazingly similar to Rachmaninoff's Moment Musical Op. 16 No. 4, composed some five years later. The suite is another matter altogether and we may be sorry that the orchestral original apparently didn't survive. This is a solid work in four parts which is much more reminiscent of the mature Rachmaninoff, though without direct quotations as far as I can hear, than anything he composed at the time with the possible exception of the first version of the First Concerto. Certainly, the suite is a fine early work that deserves performance and recording now and then. The noble and moving first part is almost quintessentially Rachmaninovian.
Now in these two works Matsuev naturally is without peer, but in the other six he has quite a galaxy (Horowitz, Lugansky, Ashkenazy, Richter, Rachmaninoff himself) to compete with. Trying to avoid all those annoying comparisons, I think Matsuev's playing itself is quite exhilarating. He has a big technique and even bigger sound, and he is apparently able to toss off even the mighty Second Sonata as if it was ''Kinderszenen''. Matsuev's blistering Op. 39 No. 6 and tsunami-like Op. 39 No. 9 are well worth hearing too. But he has to pay a price for his virtuosity, namely that sometimes he simply neglects the music. This is most notable in the sloppy - maybe not technically, but surely musically - last few seconds of the Second Sonata and in the famous G minor prelude. The outer sections of the latter are the most monotonous and mechanical I have ever heard. At few places in the aforementioned two etudes, Matsuev almost looses control; though he never really does, at those moments the music remains somewhat in the background. We shouldn't be too hard on him. He is young and he still has an ample time before him to submit his virtuosity to his musicianship. The latter is by no means missing.
For Rachmaninoff buffs the disc also has a certain sentimental value. After all, it was recorded on Rachmaninoff's own Steinway in his villa Senar (acronym from SErgei and NAtalya Rachmaninoff) in Switzerland where he spent most of his European holidays during the 1930s and where he composed the Paganini Rhapsody (apparently on the very same Steinway). The sound is strangely light, especially in the bass, but the sonority is enormous and pretty well captured by the recording engineers. My only quibble is that occasionally, in some of the most stupendous climaxes, there may be some lack of clarity and some details may get lost, but it is nothing terrible.
All in all, a most interesting and promising disc. On the one hand, we have a young pianist of colossal technique and fine musicianship who has every chance, theoretically at least, to develop into a great artist, and we have two remarkable early works of Rachmaninoff that are here recorded for the first time. On the other hand, Matsuev's playing, incandescent and captivating as it is, sometimes lacks balance and subtlety, a tendency that at least few places approaches disaster and at good many others robs the music. In short, Rachmaninoff buffs are strongly advised to overcome their disgust at the foolish title and give the disc a try.