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Text: Maxim Masaltsev
Photo: Roksolana Chernoba, Maxim Masaltsev

This September, pianist Denis Matsuev opens a music festival on the banks of Lake Baikal where he was born. The significance of this for the local inhabitants of this beautiful location is hard to evaluate.

The photographic project ‘Baikal-The Island of Olkhon’ was instigated by DEI several years ago almost in anticipation of Matsuev’s appearance at our office. On seeing these photos, Denis shared with us his deepest personal memories and feelings relating to the Great Lake and its surroundings which should help each one of our readers to undertake a magical musical journey in the direction of Baikal.

When I witness the expanses of Russia, naturally I recall Rakhmaninov. The nostalgia he experienced when he left Russia. I can almost hear Rakhmaninov’s symphonies in these pictures, the symphonic dances and rhapsodies influenced by Paganini. They never allowed him compose his symphonic dances in America, nor did they allow him conduct. They told him he was better off playing the piano. At the moment, I am totally under the influence of Rakhmaninov. I recorded some of his student compositions in his home on his piano. At some stage his grandson, Alexander Borisovich, gave me sheet music which had thought to have been lost in 1891. The story goes that Rakhmaninov sent them to Tchaikovsky and his secretary, Petr Ilich, misplaced them somewhere. There were fugues and suites, but absolutely without any notes from the composer, without tempo or nuance. That gave me a sense of mission like a pioneering explorer, the mission of a collaborator. A fugue contains the strongest emotions, a magnificent sense of movement, while the suites, sometimes IS Baikal.

Here, I see Rakhmaninov’s variations on the theme of Corelli, one of his greatest works, in literally 20 minutes so many tones and hues and moods and images change and it all culminates in an explosion of the blood vessels. In Switzerland, Rakhmaninov lived on the shores of the lake of Lucerne, a place he called Senat, a combination of Serezha and Natasha Rakhmaninov. There’s a lot that is similar to Baikal there. To record these variations, I lived and worked there on his grand piano. When you leave the house, you think you are at Baikal, the crystal clear water. Corelli is my last victory, each variation is a momentary change of image, of state of being. There are variations written in 4 lines, and there are 12 or 13 changes of tempo. In every tact. A fantastic state to be in – light and darkness and fear and illumination at the end. The music comes to an end not quite so brightly, but that can all be changed.

It’s easy enough for me to ‘go’ there, to breathe in that air. Baikal changes dramatically. It can change several times a day and the famous temperate winds called the Barguzin come from there, creating the kind of storm that you would never see even out at sea. In this landscape, 6 melodies have already changed from Grieg to Rakhmaninov’s Second Symphony and on to Debussy’s preludes and then Ravelli. Richter’s December Evenings were composed under the influence of some artist. Baikal has a particular sound: neither wind nor wave. I would often listen to the lake by putting my ear to the ice which becomes like a huge membrane over the surface of the water. Paul Winter, an American saxophonist, recorded the sound of Baikal and mixed them with ordinary instruments.

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