Ivan Ilic: A ‘sumptuous’ feast of related pieces

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a music writer and critic with special interest in piano. He spent nine years on the board of the London International Piano Competition and has written extensively on music for leading publications, including the International New York Times, Clavier Companion, The Washington Times, American Spectator and the website Facts & Arts. He spent four years in Moscow as a correspondent and also worked as a journalist in Paris, London and New York. 01.06.2014

A new CD from Ivan Ilic, the Serbian-American pianist based in France, offers a most refreshing change of pace from the current crop of young keyboard speedsters and clavier hammerers. Titled The Transcendentalist (Heresy 015), this disc will bring calm to your world with what one critic has justifiably called its “sumptuous” selections.

Ilic adds a quiet, intellectual dimension to his pianism rare in today’s cut-throat classical scene. He bases his interpretations on careful research into the composer’s most intimate intentions. He spent many months searching unfamiliar repertoire for these compatible pieces. 

I can’t think of any other living pianist who would match up eight Scriabin miniatures with works of John Cage, Morton Feldman and a young New Yorker named Scott Wollschleger. Ilic found musical relationships among them that make for a glove-like fit.

Ilic approaches these small pieces with heightened sensitivity and great economy of dynamics. Half the attraction is the mingling of resonances that Ilic patiently allows to form between notes and phrases.

Scriabin provides the backbone of this grouping, with eight of the twelve compositions. Much of his delicate piano music came late in life, notably his 1914 Opus 73, from which Ilic selected the lush Guirlandes (Garlands), an exercise in contemplative colors and shifting harmonics. At four minutes duration, it is the longest of the Scriabins. The other seven, mostly Preludes, start and finish with a minute or two.

The John Cage pieces will surprise any listener who might have only surface knowledge of Cage’s range. Dream and In a Landscape are both from 1948, still early in Cage’s turbulent musical journey. As Ilic writes in his fine program notes, Cage wrote “chance music” for more than 40 years and so it is “easy to forget that he wrote beautiful lyric pieces early in his career”. These two compositions are typical of that period, demonstrating his taste for decompression. Cage had become influenced by Zen Buddhism, such composers as Erik Satie and Pierre Boulez, and the abstract expressionist painters in New York. 

Scott Wollschleger’s Music With Metaphor is the most recent work on the disc, dating from last year. Ilic says he discovered Wollschleger while browsing “Project Schott New York” (https://www.eamdc.com/), a website offering recordings and scores of recent works. Listening to Metaphor, he recalled for me, he knew ”instantly” this would fit the repertoire he was developing for The Transcendentalist. Taking Ilic’s lead, one can feel the kinship between Scriabin and Cage. Wollschleger achieves what he calls synaesthesia, the transmutation of sound into color.

But the most bewitching piece here is Morton Feldman’s Palais de Mari, representative of his compositions that “seldom rose above a whisper”, as one critic put it. An opening motif hangs quietly in the air, hinting of quiet surprises to come. What comes is a typical Feldman sound world, free-floating yet coherent. He named this composition for the mysterious Royal Palace of Mari in eastern Syria, finally excavated by archeologists in the 1930s.

Of all his voluminous writings, Feldman’s greatest contribution, Ilic writes, are in his so-called late style, a series of gently abstract chamber works “to be played so quietly as to be barely audible”. A treasure of Feldman music, prose and audio interviews can be found at http://www.cnvill.net/mfhome.htm. 

This new release benefits from the creative packaging designed by the Heresy label. Even the conceptualization of the CD was something of a collaborative effort.  Heresy founder Eric Fraad tells me he and Ilic brainstormed the idea over a cup of coffee in a Vienna café last year. Ilic described his ideas, and the concept of “The Transcendtalist” emerged as a description of the aura Ilic creates from this music.

The striking cover illustration is inspired by a Salvador Dali painting, with six busts of the original Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson replacing Dali’s Lenin on the keyboard. I asked Fraad how they settled on with such an offbeat motif. “It just popped into my head,” said Fraad.

Recalling the beginning of this project, Fraad writes in his program notes that Ilic wanted to eschew speed, virtuosity and technique – all skills that have become commonplace in the piano world. “His idea was to explore a pianistic, sonic and affective world that was intricate and reflective”. 

And indeed, Ilic succeeds in transcending the clamor of modern life with his exquisite quietude.

Excerpts from the album are available on the Heresy Sound Cloud site: 

https://soundcloud.com/heresy-records/sets/the-transcendentalist-ivan-ili


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In the picture within the article: Ivan Ilic

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