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Anastasia Rizikov - Deyan Parouchev Photography Anastasia Rizikov - Deyan Parouchev Photography

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Anastasia Rizikov: Poetic Genius of the Piano

Anastasia Rizikov - Deyan Parouchev Photography

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The world bemoans the plight of Ukraine, weeps at the innocent Ukrainian civilians who lie dying by the thousands from the indiscriminate murder; atrocities that shock and sadden the civilized world. With equal measure, the music world is beginning to recognize and celebrate the genius of Anastasia Rizikov – at the very least the cognoscenti and discerning listeners ought to do so. Miss Rizikov is not really unknown in the world of music, but her genius is certainly not given its due.

“Artistic genius,” wrote Olivier Bellamy of that epitomé of a genius, Martha Argerich [to whom Miss Rizikov is, coincidentally, being compared these days] “is something that cannot be explained. Indeed, this is its defining characteristic. Those who live with it are unable to reveal its secrets. Absorbed by its contradictions, ill at ease in the real world, alarmed by their uniqueness, blinded by a truth that common mortals can only dimly perceive and swept along by a force that is beyond them, geniuses play like children. Baudelaire made no mistake when he wrote: ‘genius is no more than childhood captured at will.’”

Anastasia Rizikov - Deyan Parouchev Photography
Anastasia Rizikov – Deyan Parouchev Photography

M. Bellamy continues: “Like Cziffra, Horowitz, Miles Davis or Jimi Hendrix, Martha Argerich belongs to that breed of performers of genius who have a natural rapport with their instrument.” Adding Miss Rizikov to that rare tribe of musicians makes eminent sense, for listening to her jaw-dropping performances – first at Zoomer Radio Hall at the New Classical FM, Toronto and a couple of days later, at St Vlodomyr Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral [also in Toronto] – playing her favourite all-Ukrainian repertoire we are convinced of her genius. When she plays the piano it is no longer a piano; it is a violin, a clarinet and an oboe, a harp, a percussion section; indeed, a whole crashing orchestra together. “It is,” as M. Bellamy continues, “music in spirit and flesh.”

When she caresses the keyboard as if it were a lover, beckoning her seductively to paint a melody with the flesh and the very nerve-endings of her fingers, Miss Rizikov unveils the lyrical sound of perfect freedom. Thus she draws comparison – in my humble opinion – with the legendary Greek poet, Sappho who was celebrated as the greatest lyric poet ever, and “The Tenth Muse”. Again, listening to the concerts delivered by Miss Rizikov, this comparison might never be construed as hyperbole. Miss Rizikov made melodies – the “Élégie” and “Barcarolle” – composed by the great Ukrainian composer Mykola Lysenko come to life like the sparkling waters, rising and falling and tumbling from a pristine stream in the Carpathians.

By the time Miss Rizikov was into her live performance over the radio, she seemed to become lost in the music. Her eyes closed – sometimes tightly shut – as she began to inhabit the music. Melodies and harmonies seem to speak to her in a very special way; certainly they seem written on the very slate of her heart, their secrets from there to be read before unfolding them in streams of music on the concert grand, which she commands seemingly by the nerves of soft, pink fingertips. But if it feels like dancing with genius when listening to Miss Rizikov, it is also certain that the pianist takes nothing for granted. It is also true that there is a noble poise of her pianistic demeanor. She does nothing that is wildly idiosyncratic, not is she iconoclastic, à la Glenn Gould, a pianist whom she considers an idol.

This young Canadian-Ukrainian pianist plainly understands that every interpretation is just one possibility. Accordingly, Miss Rizikov with her interpretation proceeds to offer us the most enticing interpretation – an opportunity to open our minds to the wonders of Ukrainian music rarely heard on the concert stage outside this country rich in a tradition all its own. On her radio concert, for instance, her playing of Anatoliy Kos-Anatolsky’s “Prélude No. 2” and “Prélude No. 4” was one of the high points of the recital with apparently effortless distinction between the many filigree lines and the aristocratic elegance of the former, and champagne finesse of the latter. The “Gavotte No. 7 in B minor” by Viktor Kosenko unexpectedly took us into another world. It was full of glinting lights, mysterious depths, expectations, hopes and joys, like the shattered shadows of a quasi-Mendelssohnian scherzo.

Anastasia Rizikov at Regard du Cygne
Anastasia Rizikov at Regard du Cygne

In sheer colour and variety, in the depth of its characterisation and the exceptional range and refinement in her pianism Miss Rizikov imparted a prescient power and joyous stature to Ihor Shamo’s astounding “Ukrainian Dance”. Her arrangement of Shamo’s iconic work, “How Can I Not Love You, Kiev of Mine?” [Ukrainian: Yak tebe ne liubyty, Kyieve mii! Як тебе не любити, Києве мій!] brought many [including myself] to tears as she showed herself – with body and soul – to be a master of mood and atmosphere, with the ability to coordinate colour and structure to a rare degree, thus revealing her exceptional versatility and resourcefulness in this regard.

The other highpoint – to some, the recital’s very apogee – came with her encore: Nikolai Kapustin’s “Variations, Op. 41”. Miss Rizikov displayed effortless Chopinesque urbanity and lyricism to this item. Her playing here displayed her absolute control of the keyboard and mastery of this two-handed knuckle-breaker of a piece. Here she played Kapustin’s mesmerising piece with buoyant, aristocratic grace and psychological ambiguity. Her utterly ravishing performance here was almost insolently effortless, bringing untold and debonair virtuosity and swagger to one of the more volcanic works by another Ukrainian composer and pianistic genius.

All in all, this radio performance was a whole new world of pianism evoked by a pianist of uncommon genius at the tender age of just 23. Conventional wisdom should suggest that Miss Rizikov ought to be lionised by audiences the world over. However, while she is – like the Lithuanian conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla – recognised by the cognoscenti, Miss Rizikov has yet to be accorded the status equated to the genius that she truly is. Perhaps not having the name of a well-known Anglo-European conservatoire against her resume may have something to do with it. Who knows?

Anastasia Rizikov and her inspirational professor and beloved grandmother Maia Spis.

At age seven Miss Rizikov first walked onto the concert stage and dazzled the audience as a pianist whose feet barely made it to the pedals as she performed with the Kiev Philharmonic Orchestra. Soon, competing in competitions with pianists twice her age she won a slew of prizes: the Rotary International Piano Competition in Spain in 2011, the 13th Giuliano Pecar International Prize for Piano Interpretation Competition in Italy in 2013. The pinnacle of her success may well be when she placed first in the Ettore Pozzoli International Piano Competition in Italy and certainly – competing as a 15-year-old in an adult category – when she placed first in the Jaén International Piano Competition in Spain in 2015. After the latter she recorded her debut disc for Naxos.

Since her orchestral debut in Kiev, Ukraine, at the age of seven, she played in over 40 orchestral performances internationally and has worked with great conductors and musicians, such as Peter Oundjian, Emmanuel Ax, and Bernhard Gueller. Ms. Rizikov played in master classes for Sergei Babayan, Awadagin Pratt, Ferenc Rados, Anatoly Ryabov, and has worked with András Schiff, Menahem Pressler, Gabor Takács-Nagy, and Olga Kern.    

Anastasia Rizikov and her mother Liana Spis-Rizikov in Denmark

Miss Rizikov graduated at Ecole Normale de Musique in Paris with top honors obtaining a Concert Artist Diploma under Professor Marian Rybicki. And then there is also the fact that genius was nurtured until her 18th year by her grandmother and pedagogue Professor Maia Spis, and aided by mother Liana Spis-Rizikov, who is herself a singer and actor of considerable repute. From the time spent with her grandmother and her supremely gifted mother Miss Rizikov has much to give thanks for her Ukrainian heritage. This is also why she has thrown caution to the wind and plunged into a whirlwind tour to promote Ukrainian repertoire through the not-for-profit Pysanka Foundation that she founded with two of her friends to promote Ukrainian arts, culture and education-based programmes. And it was under the auspices of this foundation that she decided to put together a fund-raising effort to benefit her brothers and sisters in Ukraine, suffering untold misery in Putin’s unjust and murderous war in that country.

The concert at Zoomer Radio Hall in Toronto on the 31st of March was the first of these concerts in Canada and was put together thanks to the enduring relationship she enjoys with Moses Znaimer, legendary media entrepreneur and founder of the New Classical FM, Zoomer Radio and Vision TV and the good offices of her Canadian management. This recital was followed by one organised by her and her mother in the relatively small basement of St Vlodomyr Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral on Bathurst Street, Toronto. The proceeds of contributions and ticket sales were all transferred to the Canadian-Ukrainian Foundation for Ukrainian Humanitarian Appeal. Every cent raised was sent to Ukraine. Remarkably these efforts raised a total of $20,000 a phenomenal figure considering Miss Rizikov, together with her mother, was almost solely the spine behind this herculean effort.

Anastasia Rizikov with Mr. and Mrs. Hetmanczuk of the Canada Ukraine Foundation after her concert at Zoomer Hall

The concert at the cathedral on the 3rd of April was a slightly longer affair and the music was not interspersed with interview segments as was the made-for-radio-and-television of the one on the last day of March. That [cathedral] concert was broken up into two parts. The Lysenko and Kosenko repertoire was slightly changed. The former included the composer’s “Two Popular Ukrainian Songs”, his “Impromptu” and the vibrant “Shumka-Dumka”. From the word go the audience recognised Miss Rizikov’s exceptional sensibility and the finish and lyrical naturalness of her playing. Her playing of Kosenko’s three pieces from his “Etudes in Ancient Styles” constituted a command performance with more sharply defined declamation and more room in the frame for the music to breathe. Clearly here was a pianist with complete mastery not only of the keyboard, but of the repertoire itself.

Listening to the seductive way in which she seemed to bend the notes in employing moody Ukrainian Dorian [Scale] or altered Dorian scale. This fourth mode of the harmonic minor scale gave the music a tantalising feeling of virtuoso ululation. In Miss Risikov’s hands the music that employed this Misheberak or Av horachamin [Compassionate Father] scale. Moreover, in the manner in which Miss Rizikov slurred and sculpted the long inventions of Kosenko’s “Preludes in Ancient Styles” and Lysenko’s “Impromptu” – and most of all the diabolically difficult Kapustin piece – it was clear that there was not a single semiquaver that had not been fastidiously considered.

Throughout the concert – and you can see this from the video below – that Anastasia Rizikov brought distinction and a musical ease that seemed effortless. I’ve no doubt that it wasn’t the case though! It is given to few artists to renew our experience of a wide range of great music as vividly as she did, while appearing to impose herself on it so lightly. This made for a true encounter with a genius whose career ought to have seen a much more meteoric rise… Perhaps now is the time for that upward curve to skyrocket.

Please help bring relief to Ukrainian men, women and children – both those stuck in the country as well as those who have flown the country. Your donation will be gratefully accepted here.

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