Whenever I speak to someone about Antoine Reicha for the first time, I link his story to Beethoven’s. It’s a shortcut, because my interlocutor usually has no idea who Reicha was, when he was alive, or what stylistic period he belonged to. Born in Prague, Reicha moved to Bonn when he was 15, and spent his formative musical years in Beethoven’s company. Reicha’s uncle Joseph was the conductor of the Bonn court orchestra, where Beethoven played viola and Reicha played the flute, a few seats from one another. They became friends and rivals, always an interesting dynamic among young ambitious artists, a mixture of appreciation and covetousness.

Ivan Ilić’s Reicha project will include a four-episode documentary series about Reicha and his piano music.

Reicha and Beethoven attended the University of Bonn together, where they studied logic, philosophy, and mathematics. Both took lessons with Haydn when he passed through Bonn, and both vowed to study with him in Vienna. Beethoven left first, in 1792. Reicha settled in Vienna ten years later, an important juncture for both composers in their early 30s. Their paths crossed frequently. Beethoven was a successful virtuoso and champion of his own music. Reicha yearned to make a reputation but rarely performed his own music. The music I’ve become interested in is from this period. Reicha carefully observed Beethoven’s progress and success, but much of his own piano music remained unplayed for over 200 years.

I first learned about Reicha’s piano music in a musicological journal. An article referenced fugues that experimented with polytonality and asymmetric meters. It was the rhythmic element that sparked my curiosity. I had associated quintuple meter, for example, with Stravinsky and Bartók. It was a shock to learn that someone had written an entire piano piece in five-eight time in the 1790s. But I couldn’t find the score or any recordings.

Ivan Ilic, Reicha, PianoIvan Ilić

These fugues – Reicha’s Opus 36 – are the only piano works that specialists mention. I ended up touring with six of them, and audiences loved them. Later I learned that there was more Reicha piano music, which had never been played. It was exciting, but also gave me pause: I didn’t know if any of it was any good. That’s the difficulty with this kind of project. You have the scores, and therefore an overview. But until you really dig in, performing pieces multiple times and recording them, you don’t know what place, if any, they will have in the repertoire. Paradoxically, my fear of investing my time in the wrong music intrigued me. So I took the plunge.

It was the right decision. Studying this music has led me to reconsider many aspects of 18th-century music. While Beethoven cultivated relationships with patrons to support his work, Reicha taught private lessons as a way of keeping his independence. The history of music has been so influenced by the reception of Beethoven that we often interpret other composers’ life trajectories through the prism of Beethoven’s life. Thus many composers’ lives are interpreted as having three periods: the young, ambitious musician, followed by the heroic middle period, and finally the introverted, spiritual “late style”.

Anton ReichaAntoine Reicha by Claude-Marie-François Dien

Reicha does not fit this mould at all. Most of his experimental music was written at the beginning of his career. Works written in Paris in his later years, like the wind quintets and Etudes Opus 97, are often more conventional. There are harmonic twists and turns, but he doesn’t, say, make a point of writing a piece with just three notes, or experiment with new time signatures. Also, the way he used the piano was tremendously varied and eclectic, which makes him difficult to pigeonhole. The works’ chronology can be tricky to establish, and he often republished old pieces. He wrote nine sonatas, some of which were tremendous in scope. Others are condensed and succinct. There are also sets of variations – one lasts over 45 minutes, another lasts over an hour! He sometimes comes back to a variation within the variation form, which is unusual. There are dozens of fugues, which are iconoclastic, humorous, dramatic, elegant, and surprising in turn.

One of the things I appreciate most about Reicha is his trust in the performer’s judgement. This is reflected in the dearth of indications in his scores. This is in contrast to Beethoven, who was a bit of a control freak. As Beethoven aged he wrote increasingly detailed scores. In the late piano sonatas, it becomes tricky to understand what he wanted, because in each measure there can be three or four different things you have to be thinking about, some of which are contradictory. Studying a score by Reicha can be reminiscent of studying JS Bach’s:­ you have the notes and not much else to go by. It’s liberating.

In one of the Fantasias in Reicha’s “Harmony”, there are no bar lines. How do you make sense of that? As a performer I find that exciting: the harmonic structure and language are close to Haydn. But the intellectual challenge is totally different, because if you haven’t thought things through the piece makes no sense. Reicha’s music should be playful and surprising, not too analytical. You can’t ‘just’ do what’s written because he leaves so much room for the performer to make calls of judgment. But to what extent do you allow yourself to mould the music?

I won’t name names, but other contemporaries of Beethoven, Haydn and Mozart can be discouragingly conventional. When I first approached Reicha’s unknown piano music I expected some of it to be like this. In fact, it can be disconcerting to find something so quirky and eccentric if you’re familiar with the music of this period. Of course Beethoven is also quirky and eccentric, but in different ways. Everything is constructed carefully and a feeling of inevitability grows as the pieces develop. Whereas with Reicha, it’s as if he is overflowing with spontaneity. He’s going in directions that seem completely unexpected, but on the other hand, the dots connect in retrospect.

I knew early on that this recording would be the first of a series. Therefore it seemed important to play works that make a strong statement. To me his Grande Sonate in C Major is one of the meatiest sonatas. All three movements are successful, and it is Beethovenian in its ambition. The work is from Reicha’s Viennese period, during which he forged an expansive, confident language.

The first movement is a good example of a fundamental difference between Reicha’s and Beethoven’s approaches to sonata form: whereas Beethoven starts with a motif which he develops compulsively, Reicha spins out new thematic material every eight measures. That aspect lends a freshness, a spontaneity to Reicha’s music. The second movement is a contemplative, existential musical statement. It starts in E Major after the first movement in C Major, an inspired shift of colour. The sonata ends with an accessible, tightly structured Haydnesque rondo, full of surprises. My hope is that if someone discovers this first sonata, then learns that there are eight more, they would want to hear the others. I certainly did.

The F Major Sonata on a Theme of Mozart is more conventional. It showcases Reicha’s lyrical side. He never loses sight of Mozart’s theme, but transcends the form through refinement. His way of rounding the edges is elegant and so different to his approach in the C Major Sonata, where he overwhelms the listener with ideas. It’s hard to believe that the same composer wrote both sonatas, likely within a few years of each other.

The experimental pieces on the album are even more remarkable. They are full of bold inventiveness within small forms. If Beethoven had written a piece using only three notes, or a work with a variation in 5/8 time, it would be in every music history book. But just as important, the pieces are full of wit, passion, and lyricism.

I now programme these pieces with lesser-known Beethoven and Haydn. Audiences recognize the style, but not the pieces. Then when they hear Reicha for the first time, they discover somebody who both composers knew intimately, but whose piano music has been forgotten. It fills in a gap in Haydn and Beethoven’s musical landscape. It’s easy to forget that music history constantly needs to be updated, based on music like this resurfacing. It’s exciting to hear the music for the first time. This is somebody who was a long-time friend of Beethoven, a student of Haydn, the counterpoint teacher of Berlioz, Franck, and Liszt… He’s like a historical nexus. To hear his music is an opportunity to indulge one’s curiosity.

Ivan Ilić’s Antoine Reicha CD is out now on Chandos.