Ivan Ilic interprets Chopin via Leopold Godowsky

Rising classical music star Ivan Ilic meets the challenge of playing Frédéric Chopin, using only the left hand. Photo: Ivan Ilic

BORDEAUX, France, April 11, 2011 — One evening last week in Bordeaux, Chopin was back.

In an elegant private home, 40 smartly dressed music-lovers assembled to hear American pianist Ivan Ilic in one of his rare salon recitals. The music room could just about accommodate this group, crowded up close to the Steinway. Extra chairs were brought in when the room overflowed.

George Sand (1820-1910): Photograph by Felix Nader

George Sand (1820-1910): Photograph by Felix Nader

There is no better way to listen to the 19th century piano repertoire than in an intimate setting like this. We were so near the instrument we could literally feel the music.

Every note rang out with crystal clarity, amplified by the high-ceiling acoustics.

The vibrations were so forceful my teeth ached.

All that was missing was George Sand and her cigar.

Another difference from Frédéric Chopin’s day was that Mr. Ilic had opted to devote most of the evening to some of the Chopin Etudes as transcribed by Leopold Godowsky for the left hand alone.

Mr. Ilic’s interpretations have brought him attention in the music world for their great sensitivity and his almost acrobatic technical mastery. Based in Bordeaux, he is currently in demand in Paris and London for solo appearances with this unusual repertoire.

He has also achieved critical success with his new CD of the transcriptions (Godowsky – 22 Chopin Studies, Paraty 311.205). I have been playing it for the past few weeks and find it worth multiple hearings. It was doubly exciting to hear these same pieces in person last week.

On the CD, I would highlight Etude No. 2 in D flat Major as one of the best of his 22 studies for sheer liquid flow. Mr. Ilic brings out the multiple layers of meaning in this piece with seeming effortlessness.

Cast of Chopin’s hand

Of course great effort was involved, for these transcriptions are among the most daunting in the piano repertoire – the “Dante’s Inferno” of the piano, as they have been called.

A rising star in Europe and the U.S., Mr. Ilic acknowledges with refreshing candor that his technique was inadequate when he made his first pass at these studies about two years ago. “Frankly I felt like a beginner for the first time in a long time,” he writes in an extended essay included with the CD.

A casual listener would not suspect that No. 2 and most of the other studies are played by the left hand alone, there is so much going on. Godowsky takes Chopin’s ideas across the entire keyboard, at times pushing the pianist to awkward stretches. It is a challenge for any performer to conceal the physical strain while bringing out the purity of the Godowsky sound world. Mr. Ilic manages to balance the two with grace and ease.

His left-hand technique is now more than equal to the pianistic challenges invented by Godowsky.

What Mr. Ilic calls the “hidden potential of the piano” shines through best in No. 43 in C sharp minor, with its rich harmonics and a tendency to stay in the lower register. He has called the piece a “tornado of sound” and named this study “Tempest” for its stormy rumblings. He has given names to each of the studies, some poetic, some whimsical. No. 31 in A minor, the most rhythmic and bouncy of the series, is “Grasshopper”. No. 9, with its singing melodic line, is “Spring Rain”. The relentless No. 15a in E flat major is “Miller’s Wheel”.

Mr. Ilic is a California native of Serbian extraction, a music and mathematics graduate of the University of California at Berkeley. Now in his early 30s, he launched his career after winning the Premier Prix of the Conservatoire Supérieure de Paris. His earlier CD for Paraty, the Debussy 24 Préludes, won acclaim from European critics.

Ivan Ilic at his piano

These Godowsky interpretations differ from some others recently recorded. Mr. Ilic often opts for precise, deliberate tempi, fast enough to ensure integrity but slow enough to allow a listener to absorb the wafting colors. Godowsky’s metronome markings allow a rather wide variation of pace, but a fast rendition can leave a listener breathless. There are no rests in these pieces, and Mr. Ilic has found a way to introduce breathing space.  It sometimes required “practice sessions in slow motion as one patiently waits for further layers to emerge”, he writes.

Unexpected colors emerge from the rich harmonics added to Chopin’s highly refined studies. Godowsky offers something more. The recurrent deep bass of the left hand lends a chocolaty flavor that hangs in the air like an agreeable aroma.

The sounds appeal to Mr. Ilic, who, after working his way through this repertoire, concluded that most piano writing is “ridiculously right-hand heavy”. 

He hopes to bring Godowsky – and the magic of the left hand – to a much wider audience.

Michael Johnson is an American journalist and writer based in Bordeaux, France. He also writes for the International Herald Tribune and American Spectator.

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Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a American journalist and writer based in Bordeaux, France. He also writes for the International Herald Tribune and American Spectator.


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