Monday, 13 October 2008

Some Words with Ilya Rashkovskiy, 1st Prize Winner of the 2005 Hong Kong International Piano Competition

This interview article was published on The Flying Inkpot in December 2006.
Twenty-two-year-old Russian pianist Ilya Rashkovskiy (left) was the winner of the First Hong Kong International Piano Competition in September 2005. When Chairman of the Jury Vladimir Ashkenazy announced the result, Rashkovskiy’s response was a somewhat embarrassed smile as he acknowledged the applause of the throng around him.

One year on, Rashkovskiy is still a student at the Hochschule in Hanover, Germany (where Vladimir Krainev is his guru), but has been giving recitals in Asia, promoted by the Chopin Society of Hong Kong. He does not speak much English, but as all good communicators do, gets his points across succinctly and eloquently.

Early years

Ilya was born in 1984 in Irkutsk, Siberia where his parents are a scientist and a pianist. He first studied the piano at four with Lubov Semyonova (who was Denis Matsuev’s first teacher) and later, from the age of eight to fifteen, with Marina Lebenzon, who was a student of Alexander Goldenweiser and Heinrich Neuhaus. His mother also tutored him for three to four years. There was no shortage of culture in Siberia, where the Soviet government provided much for special schools for music and other subjects. Ilya also liked mathematics, but had too little time away from music to truly develop himself in that discipline.

First competitions

At thirteen, Ilya participated in the Vladimir Krainev Piano Competition in Kharkov, Ukraine. Vladimir Krainev spoke with him for the first time after an impressive opening round performance. In the second round, Ilya had offered three works: Chopin’s Second Sonata Op.35, Tchaikovsky’s Dumka Op.59 and Prokofiev’s Third Sonata Op.28. The jury normally requested for one piece to be performed but in Ilya’s case, they asked for all three! In the finals, he performed Chopin’s Second Piano Concerto. He was awarded the First Prize, naturally.
This led to an offer for him to study with Krainev in Hanover, which began in late 2000. This was the first time he had travelled to the West without his mother. For one and a half years, he stayed in Krainev’s household, tended by the great pianist’s mother! Later he was able to rent an apartment of his own, having garnered a steady income of his own after winning 2nd prize at the 2001 Marguerite Long Piano Competition and giving regular concerts. He remembered Paris critics as citing his performances being “no worse” than those of the 1st prizewinner, a certain Lim Dong Hyek! What is Krainev like as a teacher? “Very tough!” he gives a wry smile. He also added that all his students become very anxious on the days leading up to his lessons, and begin practicing very hard.

Ilya Rashkovskiy (far right) seems almost
embarrassed at winning the top prize.

Hong Kong and all that

When Ilya came to Hong Kong in 2005, his chief objective was to reach the grand final and to perform the entire programme he had chosen for the competition. His wish was granted, but the final required a pianist to play two full-length concertos with barely a minute’s break in between! Fifteen minutes would have been a sufficient interval, he felt. However playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.24 and Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No.3 in literally one sitting, a first time experience, was a great test of concentration and endurance that left him totally exhausted. But he responded magnificently. Ilya feels happiest when he is performing. Always calm and relaxed, he considers playing in concert not unlike playing in one’s own home and “being in your own world”. Performing in Asia has been a great experience for him. After winning the competition, he performed a programme of Beethoven’s Sonata No.32 Op.111, Schumann’s Etudes Symphoniques Op.13 and Rachmaninov’s Second Sonata in Beijing and Shanghai. He noted Beijing to have a well-educated concert-going public while many in Shanghai, and more recently Guangzhou, were listening to the music for the first time. He also performed in Manila (where he received amongst other things a marriage proposal!) and Kuala Lumpur.

Favourite pianists and role models

Who are Ilya’s favourite pianists? Not all of them are Russian. In his “younger” years, he admired Sviatoslav Richter. He also looked up to Glenn Gould and at a time practised sitting on a low chair. He’s not crazy about Gould’s Bach though, preferring Rosalyn Tureck instead. Of course, Vladimir Horowitz and Artur Rubinstein were also named. What about living pianists? Ilya cites Mikhail Pletnev as being the pianist he would listen to over and over again. He also added that some people would respond to that choice by querying, “But why???”

Repertoire & recordings
Ilya currently has 18 piano concertos in his active performing repertoire, and these include Rachmaninov’s First to Third Concertos and the Paganini Rhapsody (why, of course), several Mozart concertos, Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto and wait for this… Prokofiev’s Fifth Piano Concerto. He has just made a recording on Alpha Omega (the official label of the Hong Kong Chopin Society) of Piano Fantasies, including those by Mozart, Schubert, Chopin and Scriabin, Liszt’s Dante Sonata and Balakirev’s Islamey. He and his teacher will soon be reviewing the takes and doing the edits. And if a retrospective recording of the 2005 Competition were issued, it will have to include Ilya’s near perfect readings of Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto (with the London Chamber Orchestra and Hong Kong Sinfonietta), Schumann’s Etudes Symphoniques, Tchaikovsky’s Meditation Op.72 No.5 and Shostakovich’s Prelude and Fugue Op.87 No.15.
Winners meet: Ilya sharing a light moment
with Anna Vinnitskaya, 1st prizewinner of the
2007 Queen Elisabeth International Piano Competition.
Future endeavours

It is hard to believe that at 22, Ilya Rashkovskiy is actually younger than both Lang Lang and Yundi Li. He intends to further widen his repertoire, to include the works of Bach (“I don’t play enough Bach.”) and works of 20th century composers including Gy├Ârgy Ligeti. As to the prediction (on The Flying Inkpot) that he will win a major piano competition in the future, there’s still plenty of time.

Update: Following his triumph in Hong Kong, Ilya Rashkovskiy won fourth prize at the 2007 Queen Elisabeth Piano Competition in Brussels, thus fulfilling the prediction that this young man will garner further top prizes in major international piano competitions. Van Cliburn 2009 awaits!

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