Idil Biret Beethoven Edition, Volume 5: Piano Sonatas Nos. 7, 21 (“Waldstein”) and 25. Idil Biret, piano. IBA. $8.99.
Idil Biret Beethoven Edition, Volume 6: Symphonies Nos. 4 and 5 (Liszt Piano Transcriptions). Idil Biret, piano. IBA. $8.99.
Idil Biret Beethoven Edition, Volume 7: Piano Concertos Nos. 3 and 4. Idil Biret, piano; Bilkent Symphony Orchestra conducted by Antoni Wit. IBA. $8.99.
The fifth through seventh of the 19 CDs that will make up the Idil Biret Beethoven Archive have the same strengths and weaknesses as the first four – with strengths predominating by far. Biret, who is 67, started playing piano at age three and has gained steadily in maturity, understanding and elegance in her interpretations. She is best known for her Chopin, but the IBA Beethoven series, when complete, will make her the only pianist to have released all Beethoven’s piano sonatas, concertos and symphonies (as transcribed by Liszt) in recorded form.
Biret’s sonata cycle is the gem of this series. She has very personal ideas about the sonatas, sweeping listeners into her interpretations and arguing convincingly for them through her sheer musicality and the consistency of her playing. In the Idil Biret Edition, Volume 5, recorded in 1994, Sonata No. 7, Op. 10, No. 3, is a large-scale work in every sense: Biret plays it with an expansiveness that many performers reserve for later sonatas. The finger work in the opening Presto is especially impressive, while the lengthy Largo is expansive and compelling, although Biret downplays the second part of Beethoven’s tempo indication, “mesto” (sad). In the “Waldstein” sonata, Op. 53, the music is well balanced between lightness and intensity, with the finale being the high point, its Allegretto moderato main section tripping along at just the right pace and with plenty of delicacy to balance its serious elements. The brief Sonata No. 25, Op. 79, gets a light, Mozartean touch throughout and on this CD functions as an encore and a relief from much of the passion that has come before.
Biret’s handling of the Liszt transcriptions of Beethoven’s symphonies is more problematic. These are the earliest IBA recordings – Volume 6 dates to 1985 – and some of the performance practices are outdated, notably the arbitrary inclusion or omission of repeats. For example, taking the exposition repeat in the first movement of Symphony No. 5, but omitting it in the finale, really throws off the balance of the work. In addition, Biret’s determination to use slow tempos and considerable pedal to emphasize certain elements of the symphonies makes sections positively ponderous. Symphony No. 4, a light and fleet work and one of Beethoven’s happiest, is beautifully played but never seems fully to get off the ground – there is just enough sense of dragging to hold it down. In No. 5, the famous initial four-note theme is pounded out with almost too much emphasis, and some of Biret’s use of tremolo for emphasis nearly makes this very innovative work sound cartoonish. And the super-bright C major finale never soars. Still, listeners willing to accept Biret’s sound world, or be drawn into it, will find her interpretations consistent, balanced and occasionally revelatory – those slow tempos allow her to bring out melodic lines and some of Beethoven’s unusual harmonies quite clearly.
The most recent IBA recordings are of the piano concertos: Nos. 3 and 4 date to as recently as January 2008. Here Biret achieves a pleasing blend of drive and lightness, with the first movement of No. 3 quite stately and engrossing and the back-and-forth of the second movement of No. 4 handled with aplomb – it sounds more like a conversation between piano and orchestra than an argument. And the two concertos’ final rondos are light enough, yet serious enough, to round off the works effectively. However, the Bilkent Symphony Orchestra is not a particularly distinguished group: it sounds fine but rather bland. Antoni Wit gets all the cues right and lets Biret hold center stage throughout the concertos, but there is nothing in the accompaniment to make a listener sit up and take notice. These are performances for Biret enthusiasts but not necessarily for listeners for whom Beethoven’s music itself is the primary focus.
Still, despite some shortcomings on individual discs, the IBA releases as a whole are very impressive, and the chance to hear a single excellent pianist’s view of so much of the greatest music ever written for the instrument is well-nigh irresistible – even though it is clear that Biret’s views have changed somewhat in the more-than-20-year span of these recordings. The well-priced IBA CDs constitute a unique archive, and if the performances are not definitive, they are uniformly commendable, frequently quite convincing – and always very much worth hearing.