Antonín Reicha (1770-1836) was born in Prague but studied and had his early career in Germany before moving to Paris in 1799. A later spell of six years in Vienna was succeeded by his permanent return to Paris in 1808 and he became a French citizen in 1829, now as Antoine. Friend and contemporary of Beethoven, Reicha’s music occasionally resembles the style of that composer – especially so in his rather fine E-flat Symphony composed during his first stay in Paris. The name of Reicha brings to mind a genre of composition closely associated with him – the Wind Quintet, of which he composed twenty-five. These are notable for his personal approach to sonata-form which he respects while frequently adding far more ideas than this strict system usually allows. This trend is also to be found in these choices by Ivan Ilić from Reicha’s piano works.
Three of these works come from the hitherto unpublished Practische Beispiele, an instructional series of twenty-four compositions exploring harmony and modulation. Loosely referred to as ‘Fantasies’ they probably seemed daring in their time – especially in the opening ‘Harmonie’ – a sort of Sonata in which a brief if weighty Adagio is succeeded by six differing sections. The ‘Capriccio’ comprises a series of linked movements alternating fast and slow. Much is made of sudden pauses, but without the dramatic result that C. P. E. Bach achieved. In ‘Fantaisie sur un seul accord’ there are many sudden changes of tempo that are very effective – the absolute clarity of the piano makes this an intriguing find and how refreshing that Ilić makes every note crystal-clear.
The Grande Sonate is more conventional in form except for the proliferation of themes and here Ilić is firm and forceful – largely overcoming Reicha’s diversions which necessitate relaxation of tempo but the central Adagio is so bare of linking modulations that I don’t see how any pianist could make it sound cohesive. In the Finale Ilić keeps the quaintly broken phrases in order and the young Beethoven can be sensed somewhere on the horizon. The Sonata on a Theme of Mozart is strangely constructed – it opens with ‘March of the Priests’ from the second Act of Die Zauberflöte; six variations follow and Ilić is as expressive as possible – sadly I have to say that interest is not sustained. There follows a gentle Minuet and the last movement is a ‘Rondeau’ that is unpublished and which suitably replaces the lost original Finale. The charming Étude that concludes the programme is one of thirty-four Preludes and Fugues. It again employs Reicha’s deliberately hesitant style – all is thoughtful simplicity and it is played unaffectedly yet with meaning.
Reicha’s is music that cannot match that of the great masters but it is performed with much clarity and the recording provides such lifelike piano tone that this neglected composer succeeds in catching the ear.