Nigel Jarrett reviews a performance by Serbo-American pianist Ivan Ilić at the 2018 Vale of Glamorgan Festival.
The Serbo-American pianist Ivan Ilić, now living in France, regularly confounds expectations of what a concert musician should be. He studied mathematics and music, a combination that might suggest that he finds the cerebral as interesting as the emotional. He decamped to Paris on a scholarship in 2001 to study at the Conservatoire, where he was awarded a Premier Prix, and then at the École Normale in that city. So far, so orthodox. Then, several years ago and genie-like, he materialised in Wales and elsewhere to undertake a tour of largely obscure venues, sometimes at keyboards of dodgy pitch and temperament. At a recital in a church on the edge of Chepstow, he decided to alter the order in which Debussy published one of his books of Préludes, not out of bloody-mindedness but from a closely-argued aesthetic standpoint; or maybe some mathematico-philosophical reasoning probably lost on his audience. He loves arcana, having championed Godowsky’s Chopin studies for the left hand, and the music of Reicha. He’s also a film actor.
This background may account for the ideas he brings to performance, and not just in juggling with a composer’s sense of procession. This Vale of Glamorgan Festival appearance was held on a day when Cardiff city council had decided to close all its central roads for a ‘car-free’ day of events. The festival was arranged in detail before the decision was made, so it would have been the council’s fault if the recital had bombed, Ilić having been flown over especially. No doubt, more might have made it who weren’t up to walking a half mile to the college. Perhaps it’s this writer’s imagination, but it did seem like a surreal set of circumstances at which Ilić would have smiled where others might have frowned. In any case, he was in typically unorthodox mood, sitting smart-casual at the piano and soon with a sheaf of music in manuscript behind the piano’s book holders and on the floor beside him. But first, he had something to say.
The festival, as it has done for the past fifty years, celebrates the music of living composers, and not just home-grown ones. This year there are over twenty of them, including the festival’s founder and artistic director, John Metcalf, and the leading Danish composer Bent Sørensen. Both were represented in Ilić’s recital. Sørensen’s piano works were published in 2014 as Twelve Nocturnes. Although all twelve were listed on the programme in numerical order, Ilić played four of them and repeated the first, Sigrids Kantate, which is No. 6. The second one played was Mignon – und die Sonne geht unter, which is No 1. Then came the fourth, Mitternacht mit Mignon, No.7 in Sørensen’s ordering, followed by Barcarola, No. 4. He then repeated Sigrids Kantate. One couldn’t help smiling.
Confused? Some of the audience must have been, unless they misinterpreted the programme note, which referred to the pianist’s ‘introducing’ the piano works without explicitly saying he was going to play all twelve items. To be sure, those he performed and, one suspects, the others, are super-intimate brevities, in which the composer seems to be constructing repetitive nostalgic echoes of part echoes, snatches of melodies half heard and ending mega-softly (ppp) or abruptly in mid-phrase, almost as though hesitancy were a virtue or that the piano could at any moment nip the ends of his fingers. What did Ilić have to say? Quite a bit.
He marked the differences between learning about a living composer such as Sørensen and ones dead for a long time. Distance shifted focus to personality: flamboyant Liszt, tubercular Chopin, etc. Clues for understanding Sørensen included his relationship with Danish pianist Katrine Gisinge (his muse, and now his wife), for whom six of the Nocturnes were written. Sørensen, he noted and demonstrated, also employed additional harmonic ‘smudges’ which heightened the emotional charge. So in tune with the composer’s aesthetic was Ilić, that one might have preferred all the twelve items to have been played, with comment reduced to a précis.
Everywhere, it was a recital of musical pithiness. American David Lang’s this was written by hand showed how Ilić could make deceptively simple music reveal its inner complexity as it reaches for a melody seemingly without getting there, first of all against the distraction of overlapping ostinati. In the recital’s first world première, Ilić, its dedicatee, dispatched Keeril Makan’s Capturing Sweetness with proprietorial affection for the rudimentary materials on which it’s based. (It was perhaps no surprise that these two pieces were played in reverse order from the printed programme.)
It is always appropriate for Metcalf the composer to be featured at his own festival, and Ilić, who jokes about encouraging him to write more piano music, premiered his Prelude and Chorale. In a festival known for minimalist and other post-modern forms, Metcalf’s admission that the three-minute piece was written in a ‘very short space of time’ seemed apt, though its individual treatment of an historic coupling belied any speed or haste, just as the ‘strophic feel’ of his Endless Song from 1999 is in fact clever disguise of what is a tune making its own way against a repeated motif. Chant, the longest of his three pieces here at four minutes, is based on part of the piano accompaniment to his setting of a Welsh folk song. It requires the pianist to deal with the song’s discrete motifs on different parts of the keyboard and in a variety of treatments while all the time addressing their melodic integrity.
As far as one could tell, Ilić appeared supremely to have the measure of all this music; but, in a recital with barely an hour of actual playing, one craved for something more substantial, or just more music. He’d have been up for it.
Header photo: Ivan Ilić. All photos courtesy Vale of Glamorgan Festival.
Nigel Jarrett is a winner of the Rhys Davies prize for short fiction and, in 2016, the inaugural Templar Shorts award. He’s a former daily-newspaperman and a regular contributor to the Wales Arts Review, Jazz Journal and Acumen poetry magazine, among others. He is also a poet and novelist. His latest story collection, Who Killed Emil Kreisler?, was published in 2016, as was his first novel, Slowly Burning. This year sees the publication of his short fiction pamphlet, A Gloucester Trilogy.
Vale of Glamorgan Festival: Ivan Ilić (piano)
Bent Sørensen: Nocturnes
Keeril Makan: Capturing Sweetness
David Lang: this was written by hand
John Metcalf: Chant; Endless Song; Prelude and Chorale
Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 13 May 2018