Long before radio, recordings, and downloading culture, the piano was the home entertainment center. If you wanted to hear the latest symphony of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, or Brahms, either you took the trouble to travel to a concert in a major city, or you simply played the symphony on the piano at home. Dozens of publishing companies offered piano arrangements of orchestral, chamber, and vocal works geared toward home use, and hired numerous staff musicians to write them, such as one Carl David Stegmann (1751-1826).
Fast-forward two centuries, when pianist Ivan Ilić browsed through an old, dusty sheet music collection and discovered Stegmann’s long forgotten piano arrangements of Haydn symphonies. As Ilić’s delightful and stylish performances readily reveal, Haydn’s orchestral timbres lose nothing in translation via Stegmann’s sensitivity to register, sonority, and balance. What is more, a solo pianist of Ilić’s intelligence and cultivation can produce minute gradations of rubato that would be difficult to conduct, yet make pianistic and expressive sense. Note, for instance, how gracefully Ilić points up the “Oxford” symphony Menuet’s harmonic felicities, and notice his elegantly fleet navigation of the florid decorative inner parts in Symphony No. 75’s variation movement.
Ilić happily avoids the temptation to speed through No. 44’s Presto finale, which would undermine the quiet tension of the music’s subtle chromatic gestures. Indeed, Ilić’s masterful advocacy makes a plausible case for these works representing a veritable triumvirate of newly discovered four-movement Haydn piano sonatas. The excellent booklet notes go into great and useful detail about the piano transcription business in the early 19th century, and also include Ilić’s account of how he discovered these scores. This well-recorded release further demonstrates his penchant for unusual, fresh, and impeccably executed program building.