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A left-handed complement to Frédéric Chopin: An interview with Ivan Ilić

American expatriate pianist Ivan Ili´c has just finished a semi-private recital of Godowsky's Chopin transcriptions for the left hand at his Bordeaux apartment, and the thirty guests are sipping Bordeaux rouge in his dining room. Most of us had been unfamiliar with the repertoire before this event, and many seemed awestruck that so much music could come from playing with one hand virtually tied behind the pianist's back. Mr. Ili´c is a recent Godowsky devotee and has just finished recording the twenty-two left-hand variations for the Paraty label in Paris. It is scheduled for launch in July. In the post-recital hubbub, fellow expatriate Michael Johnson cornered him and made a date to discuss his thinking behind the music. They met a few days later for a serious talk.

Why all this attention to the left hand? Isn't it needlessly difficult?

No, in fact the more I have come to know Godowsky's left-hand variations, the more I realize that his hugely important contribution to the repertoire has been overlooked. His Etudes were composed at the very beginning of the twentieth century, and there are very few pieces for solo piano in the twentieth century that come anywhere close to this level of technical ingenuity and expressiveness.

How long have you been concentrating on lefthand Godowsky? 

For well over a year now, and it has been one of the most rewarding things I have ever done—certainly the most difficult. This music has pushed me in every way.

Of all the great repertoire out there, why choose these transcriptions?

I like the idea of championing music that is still unknown, yet much more interesting than most of the 'forgotten' piano repertoire that other pianists are peddling these days. Godowsky is the real thing, a forgotten genius, and the only reasons thousands of pianists worldwide are not playing his music are either that they haven't been exposed to it or because it seems unapproachable. It's like walking into a bar and seeing a woman so beautiful that no one approaches her for fear of being rejected. Yet she is lonely and complains to her friends that no one talks to her. That's Godowsky in a nutshell.

Don't you find the music intimidating? 

Yes, at first I was terrified. But from experience I know that if I feel butterflies in my stomach when looking at a score, it's a sign that it's the right thing for me to be working on.

Do you really feel that the piano has been neglected by composers in the twentieth century?

Yes and no. It is mind-boggling to me how many people spend months learning Boulez Sonatas. Except for Ravel, Debussy, and Bartók, the twentieth century actually didn't produce that much great solo piano music. I might add certain works by Ligeti, Kurtág, Messiaen, and Rzewski, but even the Russians age poorly. When I was an adolescent, the Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues, Stravinsky Etudes, and Prokofiev Sonatas and Concertos made me want to become a pianist, they were so exciting to experience as a concertgoer, and so I understand their superficial appeal. But now they leave me indifferent.

Was Godowsky trying to find new dimensions in sound?

If so, he certainly succeeded, and he expanded the way one can use the piano. He reveals a tremendous hidden potential in the instrument. You can't say that about many twentieth-century composers. Of course, since most composers after him are completely unaware of his music, there have been very few who have continued on that same path. For them, he was one of the many 'dead ends' in music from the first half of the twentieth century. 

Most of the composers of the twentieth century did not have the pure musicianship, grounding in tonal harmony, or fluency at the piano to follow his act. Just to get comfortable with the idiom takes tremendous dedication, and many composers preferred to write music of little value that was based on purely abstract ideas in order to prove their intellectual credentials. What a waste of talent and an assault on our collective sensibility!

What was behind your decision to attack this repertoire? 

My goal is to prove the worth of this music in the hopes that some day all conservatory students will work on at least a couple of the Godowksy Etudes to beef up their left-hand technique. But the only way for that to happen is to convince them of the music's beauty, because musicians choose repertoire with their ears. Those who choose this repertoire for its difficulty are a minority, and they are not always the most convincing performers.

Some musicians object to this attempt to improve on the genius of Chopin. What's your bottom line? 

Does Godowsky enhance or pervert Chopin? Several Godowsky Etudes are clearly more expressive than the originals by Chopin. Numbers thirteen and two are obvious examples. The original version of No. 13 is beautiful but much less sophisticated; the original version of No. 2, the infamous first Chopin Etude, is musically monotonous compared to the left-handed version. There are plenty of other examples. Godowsky's music affords a glimpse into an alternative universe void of atonality; he is much more creative with relatively simple building blocks than composers whose harmonies are crunchier and supposedly more sophisticated, but whose grasp of music (and especially the piano) pales in comparison to Godowsky. He was a real musician's musician.

Is the public ready for this rather unusual rumbling bass clef sound?

Absolutely. It would be fascinating to give a whole concert devoted to all twenty-two Etudes, and I plan to do it in the near future. It will be daunting to prepare, but it is the best way to make a strong case for the repertoire. As I did with each book of the Debussy Préludes in previous tours, I give great importance to the order of the works to frame this unusual sound world in a greater narrative form. It is a kind of meta-Godowsky recital project.

Are you doing this to develop left-hand strength to make better use of it in two-hand works? 

That is among the reasons, yes. Left hand strength adds extra layers of richness to the sound in two-hand repertoire. I have always been interested in the importance of the bass in music—it is the source of the harmonics and therefore the foundation of a voluptuous sound. I am also slowly returning to composing for the piano, and I hope that my writing will now have the improved balance between density of content and transparency of sound that I admire so much in Godowsky's music.

What specific technical problems have you faced in mastering these pieces? 

The major difficulty is building the agility of the left hand. It's a shock to take on Godowsky and suddenly feel like a beginner after over twenty years of intensive study. It's like a slap in the face.

What else makes these works tricky? 

There are significant musical difficulties to consider: 'breathing' in pieces that are continuous streams of notes is always a problem at the piano. There is also the challenge of balancing the different registers of a concert grand with one hand, not to mention the sophisticated pedaling that's called for throughout. Then there's the intimidation of the scores themselves—the way the pieces look on the page is enough to keep most pianists far, far away. I hope to convince my colleagues that they're really missing out.

Ivan Ilić plays at the Salon Sauternes of the Grand Hotel 'Régent' in Bordeaux.

Do you feel it's worth the relearning, the hard work, the intensive practice? 

Yes. I feel I have made major headway in developing my own personal practice techniques to overcome huge difficulties more generally. It also feels glorious to perform these pieces, with their supple, languid phrases, when they have been well prepared.

Has Godowsky changed your perception of other composers? 

Certainly. Among other things, I now realize that the traditional repertoire is ridiculously right-hand heavy.

Did your teachers lead you into this repertoire? 

No, I have opted to work more or less in solitude for the past four or five years. A solo career is so demanding that it's in your best interest to become self-sufficient as soon as possible. Of course it is helpful to have an outside perspective; nevertheless I find it difficult to avoid creating a dependency there. It's also hugely satisfying to be able to say that you created something wonderful without anyone's help. Godowsky's life is proof of that idea, as he was largely self-taught.

What have you retained from your most recent experience with a teacher? 

François-René Duchâble in Paris was one of my last teachers. His command of the keyboard was unlike anything I had ever seen and that inspired me to push my technical limits. He is also an iconoclast and says exactly what's on his mind without sugar coating, which I really admire. There are very few people in classical music who don't have some kind of mask. Sometimes they remind me of a bunch of spayed or neutered cats, too cautious and lacking in character while cultivating a certain gratuitous eccentricity. 

What is next in your plans for development? 

I have no idea what comes after Godowsky. This is a love story that needs to run its course. But I do know that I will throw myself at it head first. 

Ivan Ilić is an American pianist of Serbian descent. He holds degrees in music and mathematics from The University of California at Berkeley, and he pursued graduate studies at the Conservatoire Supérieur de Paris, where he took a Premier Prix in piano performance. He has performed at Carnegie Hall, Wigmore Hall, Glenn Gould Studio, and the American Academy in Rome. His first recording, a CD of music by Claude Debussy, received Mezzo Television's Critic's Choice Award, and was named a Top Five CD of the Year by Fanfare magazine.

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