Composers: Haydn, arranged by Carl David Stegmann
Compositions: Symphony Nos 92. 75 and 44
Performers:Ivan Ilić
Catalogue Number: Chandos CHAN20142

The story of how Ivan Ilic´ discovered Carl David Stegmann’s piano transcriptions of Haydn’s symphonies has all the serendipitous makings of a feature film. Should it ever make it to the screen, these lithe, liquid and lyrical performances of Haydn as you’ve never heard him would form the perfect soundtrack.

A friend’s chance encounter in a new city led to a gift of two boxes of dust-laden scores. Previously inherited from a centenarian neighbour, the boxes remained un-opened, the scores untouched, their new owner unable to read music. Invited to peruse them, Ilic´ stumbled upon a veritable bran tub of pieces among which was the unexpected revelation of Stegmann’s Haydn.

The multi-faceted Stegmann, who juggled overlapping careers as tenor, keyboard player, composer, conductor and theatre producer, may have been the first to transcribe Haydn’s symphonies for solo piano. But if Liszt’s treatment of Beethoven is your benchmark for symphonic transcriptions, prepare to be surprised by the finesse and fluidity on display in three choice works originally intended for performance in the home.

Ilic´ approaches all three with a palpable gleefulness, relishing Stegmann’s invitations to virtuosic display. With the amateur musician in mind, virtuosity is more contained, less elastic. Even so, Ilic´ is too good a pianist to allow such constraints to intrude, glossing and gilding as he goes, imbuing the Oxford Symphony (No 92) with a delectably innocent playfulness that conjures Mozart at his most mischievous.

Cut from a plainer, less colourful weave, Symphony No 75 nonetheless boasts a gorgeously intimate second movement that Ilic´ treats with due respect and quiet reverie. The Trauer Symphony (No 44) sings and rings in Stegmann’s transcription, Ilic´ surfing over its occasional workmanlike passages with a deft poetic sleight of hand to bring it, with controlled but admirable bravura, to its combustible conclusion.

It’s not material that will change or challenge anything, but what is here is as pleasurable as it is fascinating. It may well prove to be that Stegmann’s great fortune was to have been re-discovered by so cultured and consummate a pianist as Ilic´, whose rehabilitation of Antoine Reicha on Chandos over the past two years has been a revelation. Excellent notes by Marc Vignal and Jonathan Cooper’s characteristically well-framed Chandos sound add to the pleasure.