January 24, 2012

Ilya Rashkovsky

In science and mathematics building on the work of others to obtain deeper discoveries and more powerful explanations is essential to progress in these fields.  But even if  your results reach much deeper and wider than those of your older colleagues, this in no way negates the value of the latter's contributions to the discipline.

In music, on the other hand, things can be strikingly different.  If someone takes the formal, stylistic, thematic, and harmonic elements of your compositions and uses them to create deeper, richer, and more powerful music, chances are good that he will get all the credit from posterity, while you will end up being royally fucked.  Your music will be all but unknown to future generations of music lovers because it will be ignored by performers, dismissed by composition teachers, overlooked by record companies, and denigrated (if mentioned at all) by popular accounts of the history of music.  

I can think of no better example of such victimhood than the fate which eventually befell the piano concertos of Friedrich Kalkbrenner and Johann Nepmuk Hummel after Chopin had published his two works in this genre.  Although Chopin had all but aped Kalkbrenner's D-minor concerto, and also used Hummel's A-minor concerto as a model, his works have eclipsed the earlier concertos so completely that regular concertgoers in the 20th century would go to their graves without having heard a single performance of Kaklbrenner's or Hummel's works.  And while there must have been hundreds of recordings of the Chopin concertos issued by record companies large and small since the late 1920s, I don't think there have been more than two recordings made of Kalkbrenner's D-minor and more than five or six of Hummel's A-minor - all seemingly motivated more by the music's historical curiosity than by its unjustly neglected aesthetic merits.

I don't mean to suggest that this situation in music is in some sense "unfair".  Unlike with science and mathematics, our appreciation of musical works has a significant emotional dimension.  (I know a mathematician who gets teary-eyed every time he listens to a particular recording of Beim Schlafengehen, but I doubt he ever shed a tear while contemplating mathematical theorems.)   As a listener whose ears have been conditioned by Chopin's melodic gift and harmonic inventiveness, I certainly feel some degree of superficiality in the concertos of Kalbrenner and Hummel (much more so with Kalkbrenner).   And if my response is typical, I don't see anything unfair in the fact that concert pianists would much rather try to impress their audience with music that penetrates to the bone marrow than with music that only tickles the skin or massages the muscles, however pleasant the sensation may be.   Still, the concertos of Kalkbrenner and Hummel have undeniable charm, and, at least once in a while, I would prefer to hear a concert performance of one of them instead of enduring another routine performance of the overplayed and over-recorded Chopin concertos.  In fact, I would go as far as to claim that people unfamiliar with the piano music of Chopin's largely forgotten near-contemporaries have only a superficial appreciation of Chopin's musical genius.

Such idle thoughts should reveal the extent of my ongoing obsession with the Chopin concertos, or rather with his E-minor concerto, of which I must have dozens of recordings (augmented by vague memories of ten times as many concert and broadcast performances).  Obsessed I may be, but that doesn't mean that Ilya Rashkovsky's excellen live recording is just another item added indiscriminately to my alarmingly growing Chopin database.  Rashkovsky's very focused, slightly hard (but never brittle) tone has the kind of luminosity I find indispensable for communicating the melancholy of Chopin's achingly arched melodies.  With introverted but gracefully shaped phrasing, Rashkovsky's performance gives an attractively classical feel to this quintessentially Romantic concerto - which is something I always prefer to rubato-laden, metrically unstable, dynamically volatile, and technically exhibitionistic performances.  And although the tempos are decidedly on the slow side, I never felt they were dragging.  I think Rashkovsky really prefers to give a more generous time scale to the music he plays, as witnessed by his  (less successfully sustained) slow tempo in the Arioso of Beethoven's Op.110 which he played at the van Cliburn Competition.

I hope to hear more of Rashkovsky' playing in the future.


Boom said...


Progress Hornsby said...

Boom: Thanks for this post and a very thought-provoking, as always commentary. As a young piano student I picked up a book of all Variations published by CF Peters with works by Hummel, Herz, Kalkbrennar and others. A few weeks before the fall semester was to begin I decided for a lark I would learn the Kalkbrennar Variations on Rule Brittania. What a hoot! Filled with all sorts of thirds, sixths and octaves it was a ball to play. When school started I took it to my piano teacher who sat and listened quietly as I rattled off the variations in grand style. When I had finished I was met with a few seconds of silence, after which my teacher said to me, "If you ever play that piece in this school I will throw you out of my studio."

Well, I never did play the Rule Brittania Variations but when it came recital time I sneakily replaced the Chopin B minor Sonata with the Liszt Hexameron -- having to still pass on Kalkbrennar, but satisfied that I got to play not just Liszt, but Thalberg, Pixis, Herz and Czerny too.

These composers certainly deserve to be heard but unless they are heaven-storming virtuoso pieces to titillate the benefactors of the hall, nobody is interested in music that amuses, delights, entertains and plucks that wistful chord in all of us. Had Mozart not lived we'd all be listening to a lot more Dittersdorf and, truth to tell, the Metamorphoses Symphonies are quite well written and some of the slow movements are quite touching. Moscheles and Spohr had a brief period of renewed interest but that seems to have vanished like ghosts in the sunlight.

But another reason we should not forget these composers is that they give a fuller picture of the musical world of their time. Joachim Raff wrote, "In Weimar, there was so much music being made that one cold not tell which was written by Der Meister (Liszt) and which was written by myself." Well, I've heard Liszt and I've heard Raff. I can tell the difference. But we need a Raff, who could compose on a very high level, to show us just how great Liszt and Brahms were, and to show us that there were dozens of composers living right next to Liszt and Brahms whose works were receiving perhaps more performances in their day than the handful of today's accepted 'great composers.'

And I talk way too much, now that my own blog is on temporary lock down. If I were you I'd just jettison all this nonsense. Just keep this last paragraph where I say, "thank you." -- Progress

laybl said...

My youngest son, an astrophysicist, has patiently explained that the finest paintings do not move him nearly so much as a mathematical equation...Shakespeare's warning about men with no music in their souls comes to mind...thanks for the recital.

Boom said...

Hi Progress,

Good to hear from you!
I just saw a Jan.24 post on your blog, so I don't understand what you mean by "Temp. lockdown". But whatever you mean, I am glad you took time to tell the story of your Kalkbrenner experience. Music of that period seems to be a lot more fun for those who can actually sit at the keyboard and play it (as opposed to just listen to someone else play it). There is a "tactile component" to music perception that is almost never discussed, but which I know (second hand) to be significant for many musicians. (A pianist I know tells me he simply loves the way Scarlatti sonatas FEEL under the fingers.)

As for Raff, I only know his Piano Cto (C minor?) which I used to have on one of those VoxBox sets, but lost years ago when I moved from one coast to another. I vaguely remember it as a pleasant (if rather by the book) Romantic concerto, but I doubt I would ever mistake it for Liszt...

Boom said...


I wonder if your son's response to mathematical beauty is really emotional (in the sense in which one may get emotional with something like the Tristan prelude, or St John's Passion). Beauty can be admired at a purely intellectual level, and I can be profoundly moved at that level alone...
Would be interesting to find out more about what exactly your son had in mind.

Progress Hornsby said...


I was using Fileserve as my hosting service and they no longer allow downloads by anyone other than the original uploader. I reloaded the most recent posts to MediaFire but and going to wait to see how the situation resolves itself before reloading everything on the my site. A little hiatus will do me good. I haven't listened to Parsifal in a long time!

-- Progress

laybl said...

Your curiosity is justified. I distorted Joe's(my son's) views by suggesting that his blind spot included music. It is fine art that fails to captivate him. He loves Janacek, Bruckner, and much of atonal music. He and his wife are subscribers to the SF Symphony and Opera Company.

His peers are deeply involved with string theory, quantum mechanics and all that make believe. My attempts at scientific thought are met with heartless laughter.

His older sister is a cellist, teaching and conducting at Wyoming High near Cincinnati, a school munificently funded by its enlightened community. Laura is part of a chamber group, with a mostly classical repertoire.

With your assent, I might ask Joe to send his thoughts via e-mail.

Boom said...

laybl said...
>> With your assent, I might ask Joe to send his thoughts via e-mail.<<

I'd be delighted (although I am afraid that your son has much better things to do with his time :)

Anonymous said...

His excellent performances at the 2011 Rubinstein Competition are at YouTube, and I believe he was at 2011 Moscow as well,whose archives are still up.He did not advance to the Finals at the recent 2012 Leeds. Perhapss getting a little long in the tooth for competitions ? Think he was at 2009 Cliburn, too ?