On March 19, Russian pianist Ilya Yakushev will return to the Bellingham Festival of Music for a solo recital after a brilliant debut in July 2016 as a last minute substitute in the Mendelssohn “Piano Concerto No. 1.” For this interview, BFM caught up with him via telephone from his home in Russia. The pianist currently divides his time between an apartment in New Jersey and one in St. Petersburg, the better to focus on concert engagements domestically and abroad. His program in Bellingham will be the Haydn “Sonata in D Major HOB XVI: 37”; Tchaikovsky “Sentimental Waltz Op. 51, #6”; Gershwin “Rhapsody in Blue”; and Mussorgsky “Pictures at an Exhibition.”
While probably best known for his performances of big virtuoso works like the Prokofiev Concertos and Sonatas, Yakushev is no heartless bravura machine as anyone can attest who heard his meltingly lyrical Mendelssohn slow movement last summer. Admired as well for his Bach and Chopin, the probing and expressively well rounded Yakushev maintains, “The main purpose, the real question is whether you are being purely honest, whether you are creating the truly best version you can.” That mantra, stated about an ongoing recording project, appears to be at the core of all his playing.
Consider the Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue, a work best known in its concerted versions, but which Yakushev will play in the solo incarnation Gershwin created several years after the 1924 Paul Whiteman jazz band original.
“I had performed the orchestral versions of the Rhapsody several times, including a performance at the Tanglewood Music Festival with Keith Lockhart and the Boston Pops Orchestra,” he said. The son of a jazz violinist who heard much jazz growing up, Yakushev had always found classical pianists’ approach to the piece “boring.” “I would like to add jazz elements to the playing, to swing a little,” even if that was frowned upon in some quarters. “Every musician is supposed to show their own voice and demonstrate their own take on a piece.” When it came to performing the solo version, however, he was hesitant, despite the greater leeway it might offer for a jazzier interpretation. “Not many pianists play it. And I was doubtful about a concerto as a solo work. Many such transcriptions don’t work. Like the Saint-Saens Piano Concerto No. 2. That solo version is horrible!”
Overcoming his skepticism, he agreed to learn the piece for a friend who asked him to perform it in a concert. It took him “seven to eight months.” Combining the orchestral and piano parts was tricky, he said. “You have to imagine and evoke the orchestral sound,” differentiating it from the piano’s voice. “And getting it all to coordinate smoothly is a project.” With about 10 months’ experience performing it, he now feels that it “really clicks.” It will be a “great piece for the first half of the recital.” It’s fun for the audience and paves the way for the Mussorgsky Pictures.
The son of the above-mentioned violinist and a mother who was both a musician and a French teacher, Yakushev benefited from both Russian and American training. A native of St. Petersburg, he studied at the Rimsky-Korsakov St. Petersburg State Conservatory. He received his first award at age 12 as a prizewinner of the Young Artists Concerto Competition. In 1997, he received the Mayor of St. Petersburg’s Young Talents award, and in both 1997 and 1998, he won First Prize at the Donostia Hiria International Piano Competition in San Sebastian, Spain. In 1998, he received a national honor, the Award for Excellence in Performance, presented to him by the Minister of Culture of the Russian Federation in Moscow.
However, growing up in Russia in the 1990s “was tough.” After the fall of communism, “Russia was a disaster with the so-called democracy. The country can’t function in 100% democracy,” Yakushev said. During those tumultuous times, “music was not needed very much. There was always a circle of elite musicians who got to play and could earn enough to support a family.” But for an emerging young musician, the career prospects were dim. “The big question was whether to stay and hope for the best or leave.” Although he was their only child, his parents encouraged him to go elsewhere. So he applied to several European and American conservatories and landed at the Mannes School in New York City. There he “spent seven years and earned every degree available because he loved it so much.” One of his teachers was Vladimir Feltsman, who had emigrated from Russia, after much difficulty, in the 1980s. It was at Mannes that Yakushev focused intensively on the music of Bach and finally took on the challenge of Prokofiev, a composer “he had been a little afraid of as a kid.” (Fascinatingly, he found in Prokofiev a musical soul-mate. He is now in the midst of a three CD recording project of the nine Prokofiev Sonatas, “my life’s mission,” he says. Volume II has just been released on Nimbus records. There are also recordings of Bach Partitas and a recital disc.)
Having decided at age 19 to put as much distance as possible between himself and Russia, Yakushev wanted to see “what he could make for himself” on his own. He continued to win competitions—in 2005, for example, he triumphed at the World Piano Competition in Cincinnati, OH. More recently, he became a recipient of the prestigious Gawon International Music Society’s Award in Seoul, Korea. He also has had a busy schedule of performances in the US. For the last four years, though, he has been spending more time in Russia building his career there. “You physically have to be present in a place” to do that, he contends. He has another reason to spend time in St. Petersburg—he recently proposed to a longtime girlfriend and plans to get married in the next year or two. Nonetheless, he relishes the back-and-forth between countries and engagements.
Returning to Bellingham is as pleasant a prospect to the pianist as it is for listeners who heard him last summer. Yakushev complimented the BFM’s gracious organization and the enthusiastic audience, and he promised a gratifying program with a pleasing balance of works. The Haydn Sonata, he says, “is a very refreshing starter that will add positive energy.” The Tchaikovsky Sentimental Waltz, a work so popular with musicians that it is has been transcribed for numerous instruments, is “very nostalgic and even dark.” The effervescent Gershwin closes the first half. Then, the Mussorgsky—borne out of the composer’s personal bereavement—presents a series of vivid and sometimes “strange” character pieces that are both brilliant and profound. “Something grand for the second half,” the pianist said.