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Antoine REICHA (1770-1836)
Complete Piano Music - Volume Three
Rondeau No 2 in F major (c.1800) [5:41]
Études ou Exercices, Op 30 (c.1800): Livre 1 [22:24]; Livre 2 [40:05]
Fantaisie sur un thème de Girolamo Frescobaldi (c.1800) [7:14]
Henrik Löwenmark (piano)
rec. 2016/18 in Studio 2, Radiohuset, Östermalm, Stockholm, Sweden
First Recordings

Volume Three opens with a hitherto-unpublished Rondeau in F major, marked ‘Allegretto’, and probably composed around 1800. The main theme revisits Mozart, while there is a fair amount of chromatic writing elsewhere, along with some quite striking modulations and harmonic juxtapositions, leaning more towards the empfindsamer Stil or ‘sensitive style’ of C.P.E. Bach’s compositions, rather than the more-mannered galant style, that was also in vogue at the time.

As an academic, as well as performing pianist, Henrik Löwenmark’s fascinating and absorbing sleeve-notes are especially erudite, and exceedingly thorough, so that, not only does he give an initial history of the Étude as a genre, but then follows this with an analysis of each of the ten pieces that comprise Book 1 of the Études ou Exercices, track-details of which appear at the end of this review. In fact seventeen of the eighteen pages that make up the sleeve-notes are devoted to the topic (in English only), with only a final short paragraph about the writer (and thus performer), presented in quite self-effacing manner – the prevailing emphasis is more Lecture-Theatre than Concert-Hall. The title of each piece in the first book is basically self-explanatory, and each is under three minutes in length, save for ‘No 5 Ornaments’, which lasts over four minutes, but then does have the slowest tempo marking.

While, of course, the ten pieces of Book 1 can’t in any way compete with either of the two sets of twelve which Chopin wrote in the 1830s, as his Étude Op 10 and Op 25, Reicha’s miniatures do make for most interesting listening, despite the fact that, like Debussy’s twelve Études, written over a hundred years later, the didactic purpose of each is clearly stated, unlike Chopin’s two sets where this is not indicated as such, but provides a derived nickname for many of them. In the first Étude, Reicha’s writing is ingenious at times, especially the final little harmonic turn at the end, while the second, which deals with minor keys, inhabits quite a different world. No 3 treats the chromatic scale like a toccata, slightly reminiscent of Chopin’s Op 10 No 2 in A minor, nicknamed Chromatique. No 6 is particularly interesting, with its idiosyncratic chord progressions that almost lean towards the absence of a recognisable tonal-centre, and which concludes with a solemn chordal passage that finally comes to rest in the remote key of F sharp major, despite the piece having started out a semitone lower in F major. No 7 is a good-humoured little number, not without some degree of technical difficulty, with a short middle section where thirds are temporarily dispensed with, until they return for the close. Reicha ends with a short upward scale of first-inversion chords, the same pattern, and key, which Beethoven used in the theme of rondo-finale from his Piano Sonata Op. No 3, composed five years earlier in 1795. No 8 needs to be seen on the page to appreciate exactly what Reicha had in mind. Every note of the tender right-hand pattern is actually notated using alternating soprano, alto, and tenor clefs, although, by keeping this melody quite simple, it’s easier for the player than might be imagined, while the music itself harks back to the tranquillity of Bach’s well-known first prelude from the ‘48’ Book 1. One or two of Reicha’s Études do look back to the Baroque, as does No 9, which is another Bach-inspired offering, with octaves in one hand heard against a slow-moving line in the other. The final piece from Book 1 again needs to be seen to be appreciated fully. The word ‘enharmonic’ simply means calling a particular note by another name – for example, the black note F sharp can also be referred to as G flat, it’s just a question of grammatical nicety. Reicha notates the piano right-hand part in the key of G flat major, and the left hand in F sharp major, even though, on a keyboard instrument, these amount to the same thing. Again, despite its visual complexity for the player, in practice it’s just less than two minutes of simple beauty on the ear.

Op.30 Book 2 differs from the first book in that only three of the pieces have any specific teaching aspect assigned, and in total playing-time it’s nearly twice as long. It opens with a slow number, which is the longest of the set, and which, as Löwenmark suggests, might easily function as a sonata slow-movement. This is contrasted by a lively ‘Allegro poco vivace’, which might easily have come from the pen of Haydn or Clementi, save for some typically Reicha-like chord juxtapositions and modulatory passages along the way. Modulations and major-minor juxtapositions feature in No 3, which does seem to point in the ultimate direction of Schubert. No 4, on the other hand, is a bold idea for the time, given that its time signature is 5/8, and sticks to the 3+2 pattern throughout. Formally, too, it has some of the characteristics of a rondo, but freely interpreted here. No 6 returns to the concept of No 9 from Book 1, where he sets faster-moving voices against a slower, sustained one, in a piece that, at times, bears an uncanny resemblance to the Kitty-Valse from Fauré’s Dolly Suite for piano-duet. No 8 is another perpetuum mobile, like No 3 from Book 1, and certainly presents quite a technical challenge to the performer, as well as to the listener, with some more interesting chord progressions, for example, where broken chords in the key of D major are followed immediately by some in A flat major. The close is also fascinating, but this time on account of some rhythmic complexities between the player’s hands. The penultimate piece from Book 2 is a fugue which, while showing the influence of Bach, is also a good example of the way Reicha sought to create a ‘new’ type of composition, one which would, for example, lead to the use of this essentially-Baroque form in the hands of composers from the Romantic period and beyond. The final piece of Book 2 again needs as much to be seen, as to be heard, give the complex way it is notated, basically using a pair of staves for each hand, and not restricting things just to the treble and bass clef as is the norm in piano music, but also involving the alto and tenor clefs. Reicha even commented that it would provide useful practice material for a pianist who wanted to read and play from full orchestral scores. In fact, in every respect this is an unique composition, especially in terms of its harmonic vocabulary, given that it is contemporary with the two Beethoven Sonatas, Op 22 and Op 26, which are usually considered as coming at the end of the composer’s so-called Early Period.

Volume Three concludes with Reicha’s Fantaisie sur un thème de Girolamo Frescobaldi, described in the sleeve-notes as ‘another strange and in every respect utterly personal piece’. Here again Löwenmark provides a succinct, yet sufficiently thorough analysis of Reicha’s Fantaisie and its relationship to Frescobaldi’s original work, his Ricercar decimo sopra la, fa, sol, la, re – ‘Ricercar No 10 (in essence a forerunner of the fugue form) on A, F, G, A, D’. Reicha adds an instruction in the score to the effect that, in performance, the pianist should play Frescobaldi’s work first, and, to this end Reicha includes a full copy directly after the instruction, after which he asks for his own Fantaisie to be given – ‘segue fantaisie’. A ‘Fantasia’ can be described as ‘a free musical composition structured according to the composer’s fancy. Even though the sleeve-note goes a long way to explain Reicha’s piece in terms of how it might derive from Frescobaldi’s, for the listener this is, perhaps, not so vital. Either way the piece comes to a most-serene conclusion, and, not having raised much of a sweat during the rest of its seven minutes or so, acts as a solemn finale to this third volume of Reicha’s captivating piano music. Nil desperandum, though, as I am reliably informed that there is still more than enough material out there to provide for up to twelve or so volumes in total – and the Toccata label, for one, fully intends to record everything.

Apart from Toccata Classics’ in-house Swedish pianist Henrik Löwenmark, Chandos is also presenting in its own survey of Reicha’s piano music, with Serbian-American performer Ivan Ilić, and I was able to review Volume Two in that series a short while ago. At that juncture both labels had just released two volumes each.

With Toccata Classics’ Volume 3, I have now been able to get a feel of both camps. As I commented above, Löwenmark’s sleeve-notes certainly appear more comprehensive on paper – seventeen pages compared to just over five from Ilić, and this is possibly where any fundamental difference between these two men lies, one from the world of academia, and the other as a well-seasoned concert artist. But that is certainly not to imply that Ilić’s contribution is in any way lacking in terms of erudition, or Löwenmark’s in performing expertise, as neither record label would seem to be in competition with the other hitherto. I might perhaps tend to echo Dominy Clements’s comment about Ilić’s playing when reviewing Chandos’s Volume Two, but would also concede that this is probably as much to do with the inherent difference between the Swedish and Serbian psyches, as to the respective excellence of these two pianists as such.

Either way, this exceedingly well-played and faithfully recorded new issue from the seemingly-indefatigable Toccata Classics label will further enhance Antoine Reicha’s burgeoning reputation as a composer of innovative piano music often well beyond its time. But it also considerably reinforces the ongoing need for this musical exhumation, so that his true historical importance and worth eventually afford him the standing he most surely deserves.

Philip R Buttall



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