From fingers to footie with pianist Denis Matsuev
If Denis Matsuev had been born to a pair of athletes rather than to professional musicians, the course of the 36-year-old’s life might well have been played out in stadiums rather than on stages.
“When I was younger, until 15 years, music was not number one,” the Siberian-born Matsuev confesses in heavily accented English from Montreal, one of the stops on his inaugural cross-Canada recital tour. “I go crazy about sport. I play football [soccer], I play ice hockey, and I broke my hand three times. I played professionally, almost.”
As it turned out, Matsuev’s parents were pianists, and when, at the age of three, their only child plucked out the theme song from a kids’ cartoon by ear, his future behind the keys was all but assured. At 14, he secured a scholarship from the New Names foundation, which supports young talent—but only once his parents agreed to let him audition after practice with the Irkutsk junior football team.
In 1998, then 23, Matsuev gained international notice when he won the International Tchaikovsky Competition—with a little help from the sports world. “When I won the Tchaikovsky competition, at the same time there was World Cup soccer. So at the same time I watched TV, and it was a big help for me, because the atmosphere was crazy, and the Tchaikovsky competition is one of the fantastic competitions in the world. So it helped inspire me.”
Nowadays, the inspiration goes the other way: Vancouverites may not have been aware of it, but Matsuev was last here during the 2010 Olympics, when he performed a private recital for the Russian Olympic team. “I played a special program for champions,” he says. “I think classical music and art and sport are very, very close, because we have many, many competitions. Music competitions, international competitions.”¦And I have many, many sportsmen friends.” Among them, he says, is former Canuck and fellow Russian Pavel Bure.
But while Bure’s already into retirement, Matsuev’s career is kicking into high gear. “If I played sports now, I would be a veteran,” he jokes. “A pianist dies on-stage.” His greatest personal triumph, he says, came in 2008, when he was invited by the grandson of Sergei Rachmaninoff to perform and record a set of previously undiscovered works. The result was the critically acclaimed 2008 RCA release Unknown Rachmaninoff, performed on the composer’s piano.
“This was the history moment of my life,” Matsuev reminisces. “Of course, Rachmaninoff, not just for me but for all pianists, is like an idol. His music is genius.” Fittingly, Matsuev is now the artistic director of the Sergei Rachmaninoff Foundation, in addition to overseeing the Stars on Baikal festival in Irkutsk and the international Crescendo series of musical events run by the Russian Federation, and acting as president of the New Names foundation.
Not that it’s all classical all the time. While his program this weekend will feature Franz Schubert, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Franz Liszt, Matsuev promises there’ll be something extra as well: “Jazz, for me, is my second love,” he reveals. “When I go to Vancouver, my last encore will be some jazz improvisation or jazz standard.”¦I like to say classical music is my wife, and jazz is my lover.”
And if he happens to find himself with some time off? The footie fanatic, who insists he only ever practises piano two hours a day, will find a field: “If I have just one free day, I go play football.”