Antoine (or Antonín, Anton) Reicha was one of music’s originals, with a cosmopolitan career tracing a trajectory from his native Prague to Bonn, Hamburg, Paris, Vienna and, finally, back to Paris. Today he is probably best remembered for the dozens of wind quintets he published between 1817 and 1820, and as the teacher of an extraordinary list of pupils that included Habeneck, Baillot, Rode, Berlioz, Liszt, Gounod, Onslow and Franck. Apart from his substantial catalogue of original works, Reicha was the author of influential theoretical texts that enjoyed wide circulation during the 19th century. Any genuine measure of this multifaceted figure presupposes familiarity with both his music and his wide-ranging theoretical ideas. Ivan Ilić has studied both.
For his new Chandos disc, the first volume of a projected series, Ilić has chosen two sonatas, thought to date from around 1805 and only recently published, framing them with three pieces from the 1803 Practische Beispiele (‘Practical Examples: A Contribution to the Intellectual Culture of the Composer’) and the first of the Études in Fugal Style, Op 97, published not later than 1817.
The sonatas are perhaps closer in texture to Haydn than to Beethoven or Clementi. Of course comparison of virtually any composer with Beethoven seems inherently unfair; but in Reicha’s case the temptation is difficult to resist, if only because the two were exact contemporaries and acquaintances. In plan and harmonic layout, Reicha’s sonatas belong to the progressive camp, yet what distinguishes them most from Beethoven is a certain conservatism of figuration. Reicha, though doubtless able to get around the piano, was a flautist. While straighforwardly pianistic, these sonatas seldom indulge in the ‘play of hand’ that seems part and parcel of most virtuoso pianist-composers, from Mozart to Rzewski. When one abandons that expectation, there are riches to be explored. It’s also true that, in a piece like the Étude, Op 97 No 1, Reicha uses the simplest of means to achieve a haunting sense of pathos with little more than harmonic movement. In the C major Sonata, too, the extended Adagio conveys great depth of feeling, followed by a capricious finale that is both witty and resourceful.
Ilić is a sensitive, thoughtful and conscientious pianist and this project is an entirely worthy one. As the series progresses, one hopes he will resist the temptation to deliver verbatim the repeated phrases and sections that form an implicit element of Reicha’s musical syntax. Repetition in music, as in everyday speech, lends itself to variety of tone, emphasis and articulation.