L’Art de varier, Op. 57
Ivan Ilić (piano)
Chandos CHAN 20194 86:50 mins
Now in its third volume, Ivan Ilić’s exploration of the piano works of Anton Reicha is making those works’ cognate origin with the works of Beethoven yet more abundantly clear. And cognate is exact, in that the two musicians were born in the same year, played side by side in the Bonn court orchestra when they were 15 and remained friends in adulthood. But their careers diverged sharply: while Beethoven rose to fame, Reicha, who worshipped Haydn, settled in Paris, ploughed an austere furrow as a mathematician and musical theoretician and gave celebrated classes to students including Berlioz, Gounod and César Franck.
‘My study of algebra gave me an analytical outlook,’ he claimed, and that is what gives the Op. 57 variations their tensile strength. For almost 90 minutes he subjects a simple, songful theme to the most kaleidoscopic imaginable treatment, and – thanks in part to the freshness and clarity of Ilić’s playing – the wonder is that I don’t get bored. The first variation is a demure little embroidery on the theme, and the second thunders in Beethovenian style. Then, after establishing these polarities, he’s off on a voyage full of drama and incident, sometimes adumbrating Chopin and sometimes Liszt, and often demanding full-blown virtuosity. Harking back to Bach, the penultimate variation is a po-faced fugue, and the finale is a perky little Presto; Reicha’s invention never flags for a moment. It would make an arresting programme for a Wigmore concert.