Ivan Ilić Rediscovers Reicha

cover CHAN 20194

2021 winnerREICHA: L’Art de Varier / Ivan Ilić, pno / Chandos 21093

This, Vol. 3 in pianist Ivan Ilić’s projected series of the music of Anton Reicha, focuses entirely on his long set of theme and variations entitled L’Art de Varier. Written in 1804, it is clearly based on the sort of extended variations that J.S. Bach had written more than a half-century earlier, yet both the melodic material and its development sound so much like Schumann that it’s uncanny.

To the best of my knowledge, there is only one other recording of this piece available, by Italian pianist Mauro Masala on the Dynamic label, one of my favorite “indies” in that they do a superb job of recording offbeat repertoire—mostly operatic, but sometimes instrumental—in generally first-rate performances.

Interestingly, Ilić’s performance is considerably longer than Masala’s, running nearly 87 minutes rather than 75. How on earth Chandos managed to fit this onto one CD baffles me; the most I can burn on a disc is about 82 minutes and 15 seconds. The reason this baffles me is that Ilíc plays it faster than Masala, and with considerably more energy. The music practically leaps out of your speakers; it has energy and emotional involvement whereas Masala plays it cleanly but somewhat coolly. Perhaps the fact that Ilíc is Serbian has something to do with this. It has been my experience that Eastern European musicians (which includes Russians, Ukrainians, Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, Hungarians etc.) tend to play, as a rule but not always, with more passion. Whatever the reason, I can say without doubt that this is clearly the better recording of this work.

I’ve discovered that Reicha was an early friend of young Beethoven, and this makes sense, too. Some of these variants put you in mind of the Beethoven of the early 1800s, when he was really spreading his wings and developing his own highly dramatic style of writing. Indeed, some of the variations played here, such as No. 6, sound remarkably like Beethoven. FYI, E.T.A. Hoffmann, who wrote his own music in a relatively conservative style but also praised Beethoven highly, also admired Reicha, as did Hector Berlioz.

What impressed me the most was how varied Reicha’s variations were, as well as how much chromatic movement there is in several of them, such as No. 11. He apparently had an endless fund of ideas to draw on. It would be nice to say that this work may have influenced Beethoven’s own Eroica and Diabelli Variations, but as I said earlier, the resemblance here is more that of Schumann, who came much later, than of his contemporaries. After a while, you almost stop listening to Ilić’s dazzling technique and focus entirely on the music itself. It almost takes on a life of its own, as well it should. In Variation 14, Reicha pretty much states the theme “straight” but constantly shifts the underlying harmonies, sometimes dipping into the minor. Variation 15 is explosive and, here again, resembles Beethoven; when changing into the minor in this one, he pulls the melodic line towards the minor as well.

My sole complaint about this work was that Reicha really did not change the theme enough from variation to variation; it is always in the forefront and always the same note-sequence, which made it somewhat predictable for me as the variants continued. This was a trap that neither Beethoven nor Schumann, later on, fell into; they changed their themes around so much that by the fourth or fifth variation, you’re in a different world. Yet Reicha could be more playful than Beethoven, i.e. in Variation 32 where he keeps returning to a four-note rhythm with pauses in between.

My assessment of this disc is that it is a real gem. Great music played with a perfect touch, tone and feeling that you’ve probably not heard before, with near-perfect recorded sound. Go for it!

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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2 thoughts on “Ivan Ilić Rediscovers Reicha

  1. Michael Bulley says:

    I was greatly looking forward to this recording. Now, however, I must condemn it, as distorting the composer’s intentions. It is all to do with rhythm and phrasing, and the faults begin at the very beginning, with the theme. In the score, the theme, in 4/4, consists of three sections, with the last two repeated. Each section ends in a crotchet followed by a crotchet rest. Ilić consistently plays the final crotchet of each section as if it had a fermata over it that exactly doubled the duration of the note (or, you could say, he replaces the crotchet with a minim). The result is that you get five bars that each last a quarter as long again as the others. The whole melody, of all three sections joined together, then becomes something different from what Reicha wrote, rather as if you were to sing the first line of God Save the Queen with two beats on the word Queen. It might be fun to sing God Save the Queen in 7/4, but I can’t see it being adopted for ceremonial occasions.

    Has Ilić interpreted the theme as a chorale, where you typically find such held notes? If so, it is a misconception and, in any case, he does the same thing, or similar, in other variations you could not take as chorale-like. Also, the rhythm of dotted crotchet plus quaver is sometimes dragged out, so that time equivalent to an extra semiquaver is added before the quaver arrives, and I can see no advantage in that phrasing here. In some variations, he goes even further with stretching the bar. In Variation 14, for example, time equivalent to two extra beats is added at the end of the first section, and of almost three at the end of the second. There, it is as if the music died, and you do not believe its subsequent resurrection. The same thing happens in all the variations where the second section ends on a minim chord. Variation 5 consists of sequences of bars of 4/4 + 3/4 + 2/4, but in Ilić’s version the first section ends 4/4 + 3/4 + 3/4, completely defeating the object! In the majority of the variations, the score itself makes it impossible to make one, two or all of these section-ending bars take considerably more time than the others in the same way and then Ilić simply has to plough on, but I don’t know whether he sees the inconsistency. You can check all this yourself, as a version of the score exists on the IMSLP web site. The modern edition is published by Henle.

    How was this allowed to happen? It is, I think, because the work is not well known. The only other recording was made 20 years ago and, as far as I know, the work has never been performed in public in modern times. I am speculating a bit here, but I suspect the people at Chandos will have put their trust in Ilić and will not have listened to the piece with the score in front of them. What if Ilić had been recording a well-known work for them? What if, for example, he had ended the first phrase of Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata with a minim instead of a crotchet, thus adding a beat’s worth of time to that bar? Then, Chandos would surely have said no one had ever played it like that and they could see no justification for it. I can see no justification for what Ilić has done with certain sections of Reicha’s Art de Varier, particularly the theme, which is a lovely one. That theme can be left to take care of itself. It will perhaps influence the pianist instinctively to make slight adjustments of rhythm to show it in its best light. It doesn’t need changing, to become something the composer didn’t write. As the variations are based on the theme and the theme is not given, they are all, in a sense, vitiated, one way or another, in this recording.

    This is such a shame, as Ilić has shown, with his previous discs, that he can play Reicha. With some of the pieces on those discs, I disagree with some aspects of his interpretation, but I would never have said he wasn’t playing the music. This recording of Op.57, however, is a different kettle of fish.

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