The art of variation

Anton Reicha was a student of Haydn, a friend of Beethoven and a renowned music theorist and pedagogue, who taught fugue and counterpoint at the Conservatoire de Paris to Berlioz, and gave private lessons to Gounod and Franck. In recent years his music has been rediscovered thanks to the remarkable work done by Serbian-American pianist Ivan Ilic, who launched a five-disc series devoted to solo piano works by Reicha with the label Chandos. After a first album in 2017, which included the Grande Sonate in C​ major, the Sonata in F major, and three excerpts from Practische Beispiele, and a second one devoted to fugues in 2018, Ivan Ilic is now presenting the third album, L’art de varier, Op. 57, which consists of fifty-seven variations on a theme, composed in 1802 – 03 in Vienna. 

Reicha had just settled in Vienna, and rekindled his friendship with Beethoven, when he composed his Art de Varier, op. 57, a set of variations for piano, the number of variations corresponding to the opus number. In this work, as Marc Vignal puts it in the booklet of the album, Reicha reveals himself « not only the successor to Bach and the contemporary of Mozart, Haydn, and above all Beethoven, but also the dazzling and visionary forerunner of Chopin, Schumann, Alkan, and Liszt ». That’s what makes this album much fun to listen to, as you can try to hear in Reicha’d variations how he foreshadows the music of Lizst, Schumann, Chopin and others. We can’t know for sure if these composers knew of this score, but as Ivan Ilic explained in an interview to Presto Classical’s Katherine Cooper « the scores were floating around Europe: Reicha was published by Breitkopf, one of the most important publishers around, and they were made available in various countries. He was also a very well-known pedagogue: his treatises on harmony and composition were widely translated by people including Czerny, who translated them into German from the original French. »

The theme Reicha composed starts with a simple tune, which he turns into a fugue, as he was obsessed ith fugues and counterpoint for most of his life and as Ilic explained « wanted to prove he could write something that was contrapuntally irreproachable » :

« One interesting thing about this work is that the theme is like that but the variations are not: the theme itself is perfectly conceived in order to allow him to digress in all kinds of different directions. And that kind of digression is very much a trait of the younger Reicha, up to when he was about 35; once he settled in Paris later on all his work became structurally perfect. » (Ivan Ilic, interview with Katherine Cooper, Presto Classical, January 2021)

Ivan Ilic’s performance sounds highly natural, perfectly articulated, and extremely lively. The sound he gets from his Steinway Model D is colourful and nuanced, and he demonstrates a deep understanding of Reicha’s language. This album is yet another superb Reicha performance by Ivan Ilic, a playful and welcome new release that should pique the curiosity of seasoned music-lovers.

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