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Antoine REICHA (1770-1836)
Rediscovered - Volume Two
Études dans le genre Fugué Nos 1-13, Op 97 [61:05]
Fugue, Op 36 No 12 [1:25]
Ivan Ilić (piano)
rec. 2018 Potton Hall, Dunwich, UK
CHANDOS CHAN20033 [62:35]

Composer Anton (Antonín, Antoine) Reicha (Rejcha) was born in Prague, in what is now the Czech Republic, before later becoming a naturalized French citizen. Born in the same year as Beethoven, who became a lifelong friend, Reicha is now best remembered for his substantial early contributions to the wind quintet genre, as well as his role as teacher of such pupils as Liszt, Berlioz and Franck. He was also an accomplished theorist, and produced several treatises on various aspects of composition. Some of his theoretical work even dealt with experimental methods of composition, which he applied in a variety of works for piano, and string quartet.

None of the advanced ideas he advocated in the most radical of his music and writings were generally accepted or employed by other nineteenth-century composers and, due to his unwillingness to have his music published, he fell into obscurity soon after his death, leaving his life and much of his work yet to be put under the microscope. To the vast majority of music-lovers, he is probably best known for his chamber music. But at last, more and more of his keyboard music is appearing on CD, with Volumes 1 and 2 of his Complete Piano Music released in 2016 and 2017 respectively on the eminently-proactive TOCCATA CLASSICS label, played by Swedish pianist Henrik Löwenmark on a 97-key concert grand by Stuart & Sons (TOCC0008 and TOCC0017). Both CDs were subjects of reviews on MusicWeb International (MWI), in September 2016, and October 2017 respectively. Volume 3 is now scheduled for release at the start of November 2018.

Rather like proverbial London buses, where the saying goes you wait ages for one, and then two come along at once, no sooner had TOCCATA released their Volume 2, than CHANDOS followed suit a few months later with their own initial take on Reicha’s piano music. Entitled ‘Reicha Rediscovered Vol. 1’ this featured Serbian-American pianist Ivan Ilić, and itself had two successive reviews in November and December 2017.

I doubt there is a collective noun for fugues, or fugal compositions – perhaps a ‘flurry’, or a ‘frenzy’ – but Ilić’s Volume 2 is a contrapuntalist’s delight, given that it features thirteen of Reicha’s Études dans le genre Fugué, Op 97, and concludes with the twelfth Fugue from the earlier 36 Fugen für das Piano-Forte, Op 36 (1803). Reicha’s ‘Practische (sic) Beispiele’ (Practical Examples) of the same year include techniques like bitonality, in two keys simultaneously, and polyrhythms, a similar concept in terms of rhythms, here explored in extremely challenging sight-reading exercises. His Op 36 Fugues were conceived largely to illustrate his ‘neue Fugensystem’ (new Fugue System) – essentially novel ideas he had about fugal construction, which had already commanded a fair deal of Beethoven’s time during his Late Period.

At this juncture, it might seem that Ilić’s Volume 2 is merely going to sound more like an extended academic exercise, admittedly crammed with wonderful cerebral complexities, but which then don’t always sit that comfortably when assigned to just two hands at the keyboard. But, to start with, and quite differently from Bach’s monumental Well-Tempered Keyboard, BWV 846–893, two sets of 24 Preludes and Fugues in every major and minor key, or Shostakovich’s single set of 24, some 200 years later, the 13 examples from Reicha’s Op 97 – the opus consists of 34 in total – which Ilić has chosen here don’t follow any set pattern in terms of key. As with Bach and Shostakovich, each fugue is still preceded by its own prelude, though there are occasions where the fugue is in the minor key, while the prelude is in the major – Nos 4, 6 and 13, for example, and vice versa, as in No 3.

But this wasn’t why I became absolutely riveted for the complete duration of the CD. The musical variety of the preludes alone makes for truly fascinating listening, and there simply isn’t a dull moment as far as the fugues go, either. This is largely helped by the fact that virtually every fugue has a brisk tempo marking, or, where it is slower, smaller note-subdivisions are used.

Even then there are two other vital factors which make this CD so attractive to own. Firstly there’s Reicha’s unique and idiosyncratic musical style, not only absolutely germane to the modern pianoforte, whether a period instrument, or the immensely impressive sound of Ilić’s Steinway Model D, but which makes you want to double-check, from time to time, that Reicha and Beethoven were indeed born in 1770.

Secondly, and of almost equal importance, is Ilić’s consummate technique, his great sensitivity and empathy with the style, and his supreme ability to present Reicha’s music as something of real significance and merit, rather than just the product of yet another newly-discovered composer who had apparently been dealt a bad hand by the passage of time.

It might seem strange that, while we have the likes of Mícéal O'Rourke and Leif Ove Andsnes championing the works of their respective fellow-countrymen, Field and Grieg, the two leading exponents of Czech-born Antoine Reicha’s piano music are Swedish, and Serbian. Henrik Löwenmark on Toccata Classics completed his Master’s thesis, ‘The Piano Music of Anton Reicha’, at the University of Gothenburg back in 2006.

On the other hand, in a recent article by Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim for The New York Times of September 7, 2018, when it was suggested that Ilić might be ‘taking a gamble by devoting a sizable chunk of his career to a largely unknown composer’, the pianist countered with, “I just need this music right now. And I need to connect with people who get this music: the humor, the stops and starts, the way that he’s winking at the audience all the time with respect to what expectations are.”

I, for one, certainly feel he has achieved his objective to sheer perfection, with this, his second Reicha release.

Philip R Buttall

Previous review: Dominy Clements

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