REICHA Chamber Music
Antoine Reicha’s reputation has long been hampered by the air of academicism that clings to it. A Czech-born contemporary of Beethoven, he studied in Vienna with Salieri before settling in 1808 in Paris, where he was eventually appointed professor of fugue and counterpoint at the Conservatoire: his pupils notably included Berlioz, Liszt, Gounod and the teenage Franck. As a composer, he was perhaps best known in his lifetime for his big didactic piano cycles, the 36 Fugues for piano and L’art de varier, which the early Romantics, unsurprisingly, found cold and mathematical, though today he is primarily remembered for his wind quintets, written to improve the technique of the Opéra-Comique’s players. We hear little of the rest of his output, however, so this survey of his chamber music affords a much-needed opportunity for reassessment.
The set aims to dispel notions of Reicha as drily pedagogic by emphasising the experimental nature of his concerns with harmony and form. The E major String Quartet is effectively a chamber concerto with a virtuoso role for the first violinist, while the F major Piano Sonata amalgamates variation with sonata form and draws the thematic material of its opening movement from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. The E major Piano Sonata and the Variations on a Theme by Gluck push, like the wind quintets, at the boundaries of technique rather than structural convention, but there are also some striking pieces that seem far in advance of their time. The Cercle harmonique Fugue for piano passes startlingly through all 12 keys of the chromatic scale in turn. The fluctuating harmonies and flowing melody of the Étude L’enharmonique sound like Schubert, though the Andante maestoso Fugue, to which it forms a prelude, seems stately by its side.
The performances, given by graduates and ensembles from the Chapelle Musicale Reine Elisabeth in Belgium, are uniformly excellent. Three players divide the piano works between them, and Josquin Otals’s assertive, bravura manner contrasts both with Victoria Vassilenko’s more reflective approach and ore Radevski’s lyrical refinement. The Quatuor Girard do fine things with the E major Quartet: leader Hugues Girard brings elegant dexterity to his solos, and there’s real drama when they are joined by viola player Tanguy Parisot for the String Quintet in F minor, a dark work that generates considerable intensity. This is very much an ensemble to watch out for, as is the Trio Medici, who tackle the almost symphonic D minor Piano Trio with great panache. Be warned that the playing order on the second disc differs from that given in the booklet notes, and the tracking details are consequently incorrect. But it all leaves you wanting to hear more, both of Reicha and of his performers.