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The Transcendentalist
Track list below review
Ivan Ilić (piano)
rec. September and November 2013, Salle Cortot, Paris.
HERESY RECORDS HERESY015 [64:00]

In the liner-notes to this recording, Eric Fraad, the head of Heresy Records, points out that the word “transcendental”, in classical music, is strongly linked to Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes. He says, “It’s ironic that the word transcendental has become so strongly associated with virtuoso technique in music.” This recording looks at the older usage of the word, championed by Ralph Waldo Emerson and others in the early 19th century in New England. Emerson’s Transcendentalism was a quest for a connection with nature, with the divine that is inside each person; a search for meaning in the subtle and the quotidian. As such, this album is a collection of pieces that match that concept; rather than wowing by their dizzying pianistic skills. They present moods, feelings, and display a virtuosity of “thought and originality rather than technical prowess”.

There are also links among the four composers present on this recording. Cage and Feldman were great friends, and Feldman took piano lessons, early in his life, from a woman who had been friends with Scriabin. The young American composer Scott Wollschleger, who was a student of Feldman, follows in the footsteps of all three.

This is, therefore, a recital collection of a variety of pieces that are slow, languid, thoughtful and peaceful. The short Scriabin works are all of the type that recall Satie, or Debussy; simple, subtle, yet moving works that create miniature sound-worlds. The two works by John Cage fit well amongst the Scriabin pieces. While one is mostly familiar with Cage’s aleatoric works, or his pieces for prepared piano, the two pieces here – both composed in 1948, around the time he was writing his Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano — are tonal works, without any treatment of the piano.
 
Scott Wollschleger’s Music Without Metaphor also has this same feel, with a stark Feldmanesque sound. His piece is a fascinating exploration of simple melodic fragments played seemingly without rhythm. In the hands of Feldman, this could go on for an hour, but Wollschleger stops at less than seven minutes. You can view the composer’s intricate hand-written score on his website.

The final, longest work on this album is Morton Feldman’s Palais de Mari. Written in 1986 for the pianist Bunita Marcus, this 22-minute work is typical of Feldman’s late compositions, with short motifs played over and over, shifting and changing throughout. Played at pianississimo, with the sustain pedal held throughout, the tone is dreamlike, and the subtle shifts in the melodic fragments carry the listener away. Themes come and go, return and fade, creating a sound-world full of questions, rather than resolving and making statements. Ilić plays this work much shorter than most pianists - the three other versions I have of Palais de Mari run from 25 to 29 minutes – but the sound he gets from his Steinway D is rich and complex.

Ivan Ilić has created a fine program, matching up a number of composers whose music fits a certain mood. There are certainly others he could have included – Satie, some Debussy, Harold Budd, or others – showing that this type of piano music is not an oddity – but it’s true that when a pianist wants to show off, they’re more likely to want to play Liszt or Chopin than Feldman or Cage.

This should appeal strongly to those who want a piano disc to make them think. If you’re not familiar with Feldman, Palais de Mari could be the stepping-stone into his world.

Kirk McElhearn

Track list
Alexander SCRIABIN (1872-1915)

Prelude, Op.16 no. 1 in B major [2:48]
Prelude, Op.11 no. 21 in B flat major [1:17]
John CAGE (1912-1992)
Dream (1948) [9:03]
Alexander SCRIABIN
Guirlandes, Op.73 no. 1 [4:15]
Prelude, Op.31 no. 1 in D flat major [2:28]
Prelude, Op.39 no. 3 in G major [1:23]
Prelude, Op.15 no. 4 in E major [1:11]
Scott WOLLSCHLEGER (b. 1980)
Music Without Metaphor (2013) [6:50]
Alexander SCRIABIN
Rêverie, Op.49 no. 3 [1:10]
Poème languide, Op.52 no. 3 [1:36]
John CAGE
In a Landscape (1948) [9:30]
Morton FELDMAN (1926-1987)
Palais de Mari (1986) [22:37]