Dec 13th 2016

Young Russian brings personal élan to Mussorgsky’s Pictures

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”

 here.

Ilya Rashkovsky is a rising young Siberian pianist, now based in Paris, whose new CD injects fresh élan into Modeste Mussorgsky’s delightful Pictures at an Exhibition. The performance shows no sign of battle fatigue despite being a mainstay of his recital repertoire for the past seven years. Rashkovsky says he has played it 30 times in public.

A native of Irkutsk, Rashkovsky has built a repertoire spanning classical and romantic eras but has never lost his Russian roots. Pictures proves the point. As Sviatoslav Richter once said, the composition is the “best Russian work for piano, amen”.

Mussorgsky sketch by Michael Johnson

In his CD (“Mussorgsky” La Musica LMU 007) Rashkovsky plays the recurring promenade with controlled majesty, and dips in and out of the ten diverse musical pictures with seeming ease.  He acknowledges a “highly personal” interpretation, facilitated by his decision to learn the piece on his own, without recourse to a teacher.

Rashkovsky says in his liner notes that he wanted to avoid copying others’ ideas. “With some music,” he wrote, “I feel the need to shut myself away without trying to find out how other pianists approach it.” When he plays the finale of Pictures, and the Russian church bells ring out, he says, “I feel myself truly transported back to Russia.”

Mussorgsky viewed the actual pictures at an exhibition in St. Petersburg in 1874 staged in homage to the premature death of his friend, the architect and watercolorist Viktor Hartman.

Mussorgsky was so deep into his emotions over Hartman’s passing that he produced the work in 20 days without a break. “I can hardly manage to scribble it down on paper fast enough,” he wrote to a colleague in mid-composition. “I think it is working.”

For this CD, Rashkovsky adds Rachmaninov’s Sonata No. 2 Op. 36 and two short pieces by Tchaikovsky – both of which bear references to Pictures.

I was curious to know more about Rashkovskiy, where he came from and where he is going, and so arranged an email interview with him in French. Here is my translation of our interview.

Has Paris become your permanent home?

There is no guarantee that I will stay in Paris. I travel abroad regularly for recitals and concerts, so we shall see.


You have studied in Russia and Germany. Did you move to France specifically to work with Marian Rybicki at the Ecole Normale Supérieure de Musique Alfred Cortot? 

For the past seven years I have lived in Paris and opted to work independently of any individual teacher. Marian Rybicki has helped me musically, however, and I still play for him occasionally.


What is your personal situation?

I am 32 years old, and married to Japanese girl.


Lazar Berman said once that serious pianist should have as many concerti in his repertoire as his age. Are you keeping pace?

I am developing in line with the Berman rule.


Your new CD features a powerful version of Pictures at an Exhibition. Is this new to your repertoire?

Oh no. Pictures is one of the first pieces I learned when I arrived in Paris. By now, I have played it about thirty times in recitals.


Do you notice that Russian pianists playing internationally exploit the “Russian school” sound that developed in the 19th century, or has everyone become standardized?

I don’t like to categorize pianists by nationality. One even hears the generalization that players from Asia lack soul. Not true! There are all kinds of pianists today including various Russians. I am certain that if you listen to a pianist blindfolded, it would be very difficult to say where he or she comes from.


And yet in your Pictures recording, you seem to display the “generosity of expression” that typified the old Russian school.

I had no such thing in mind. Mussorgsky inspired me musically, and so I simply strived to play the piece as well as possible.


What new repertoire are you working on now?

I have a project under way to pair J.S. Bach and Toru Takemitsu for a recital program. I also plan combinations of Bach Partitas, the Suites Françaises and the Preludes and Fugues. And if all goes well, the Goldberg Variations too. And I might undertake a complete set of the Prokofiev sonatas. I try to enlarge my repertoire steadily every month. I have about twenty favorite composers I concentrate on.


Are you strictly a solo performer?

No, I regularly play in chamber ensembles too. Soon I will be working on the Richard Strauss sonata for violin and piano.


Except for a bit of Poulenc and Ravel, you seem to favor classical and romantic composers. Are you avoiding contemporary music such as that of Berio, Lachenmann, Feldman, Cage?

I do not know all the contemporary composers but several of them appeal to me. One that I particularly appreciate is the Korean composer Jeajoon Ryu. I am totally open to contemporary music although I do not often perform it. Sometimes mastering these pieces can take a great deal of time. For example, learning the Schubert A Major sonata D959 takes about the same amount of time as one Ligeti étude.

You have come a long way since your beginnings in Novosibirsk. Are you satisfied with your career progress?

I am satisfied with my progress thus far but looking ahead ten years my aim is to play better and better. 

An analysis and appreciation of Pictures at an Exhibition was published on Open Letters Monthly: http://www.openlettersmonthly.com/how-pictures-comes-to-life/


 


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