Ivan Ilic : A ‘fantastic’ version of Haydn symphonies on solo piano
When pianist Ivan Ilic came across long-lost solo piano transcriptions of several Joseph Haydn symphonies, he recognized the importance of his discovery. Quickly sight-reading Symphony No. 44, Haydn’s “Trauer” (Mourning), in a Cologne piano shop, his instinct was confirmed. Ilic recalls the first hasty run-through “sounded fantastic on the piano”.
He went on to produce stunning performances of three transcriptions that now fit into the repertoire he is performing for European and U.S. audiences.
“Ivan Ilic Plays Haydn Symphonies” a new premiere recording of transcriptions of Nos. 44, 75 and 92, has now appeared, produced and distributed by Chandos (Chan 20142).
Ilic does justice to Karl David Stegmann (1751-1826), the composer/transcriber who produced these works, only to see them moulder in a closet in a private home in Cologne. Ilic recalls that so much dust had accumulated in the cartons of scores that he had to stop to wash his hands three times while sifting through the gems.
Ilic’s playing on the new CD is articulate and authoritative, resonating as if these pieces were originally composed for piano, not as condensed reworkings of an orchestral version, as some of the Liszt and Beethoven transcriptions seem. The power, dynamics, the arpeggios, phrasing, the virtuoso turns are all there. The original symphonic themes and dramatic passages will be recognizable to Haydn fans.
A sample demonstrates the appeal of this fresh material.
This is some of Ilic’s best work. A California native of Serbian extraction, he is emerging now as a major player in a crowded field. He has found a niche of “new music” from the 18th and 19th centuries that is rarely, if ever, heard in recitals or concert halls. A year ago he created a stir with the piano compositions of Anton Reicha, a friend of Beethoven whose original creations had been almost forgotten. Chandos has published two of Ilic’s Reicha collections and more are planned.
The choice of Haydn’s Symphony No. 44 is significant in the composer’s history. An essay in the CD booklet by Haydn scholar Marc Vignal calls it “one of the most beautiful jewels” from the era, typified by Haydn’s sensibility and dramaticism and by more frequent use than before or afterwards of the minor mode in symphonic writing. Adapting to the piano, Stegmann makes effective use of unison octaves reinforced by a further octave in the low register. The result is redolent of the full orchestra version.
Musicologist Vignal points out Indian references, popular at the time, in No. 75, revealing his talent as a “master of the synthesis of the erudite and the popular”.
And Symphony No. 92, the “Oxford”, written for his appearance there at a ceremony awarding him an honorary doctorate degree, offers its own originality. Vignal suggests listening to the “magnificent” adagio (renamed cantabile in the transcription) as high innovativel for the time. Haydn biographers take note of his creative development during his London years where he produced his most futuristic symphonies, of which the Oxford was a precursor.
Ilic molds this material into fascinating new repertoire for the adventurous pianist.
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