Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 2 and 6. Royal Flemish Philharmonic conducted by Philippe Herreweghe. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).
Idil Biret Beethoven Edition, Volume 13: Symphony No. 3 (Liszt Piano Transcription). Idil Biret, piano. IBA. $8.99.
Idil Biret Concerto Edition, Volume 2: Tchaikovsky—Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 3. Idil Biret, piano; Bilkent Symphony Orchestra conducted by Emil Tabakov. IBA. $8.99.
Philippe Herreweghe’s march through the Beethoven symphonies continues to be distinguished by some very fine playing and some rather unusual handling of this canonic music. In No. 2, Herreweghe and the Royal Flemish Philharmonic give the work a modicum of weight, but not too much – the work clearly sounds like a successor to No. 1 rather than an anticipation of the “Eroica.” Tempos are judicious – the second movement does not drag, and the third is a bit slower than in most performances – and instrumental balance is careful, with the result that the symphony has more structural interest than it often does while being handled in a fairly matter-of-fact way: Herreweghe makes no attempt to highlight forward-looking elements of the work, simply letting it flow naturally. But his concept of flow is different in No. 6, the “Pastoral.” Here the first movement is significantly quicker than usual – this is no stroll through the country but a fast walk. It takes some getting used to, but turns out to work surprisingly well, with a brightness and bounce that the movement does not always possess. And the contrast with the second movement, whose tempo is much more traditional and therefore seems particularly slow after the speedy opening, is pronounced and quite effective. Here as in No. 2, Herreweghe takes a straightforward interpretative approach: the storm of the third movement is not an overwhelming Romantic-era tempest but a rather moderate downpour. But he is at pains to bring out instrumental touches that other conductors downplay or miss, such as the bassoon in the third movement. These are attractively unusual performances that may not be the best first choice for someone just building a classical library, but that contrast very pleasantly with more run-of-the-mill readings. And the sound, as usual on PentaTone SACDs, is excellent.
The re-release of Idil Biret’s march through Liszt’s transcriptions of Beethoven’s symphonies continues, too, and Biret’s handling of the “Eroica” is in its own way as unusual as Herreweghe’s versions of Nos. 2 and 6. The 1986 recording, like others in this Biret series, is flawed by its inconsistent handling of repeats – in large part a function of the original release on vinyl, which has more time constraints than CDs. But leaving that element aside, Biret’s way with the “Eroica” is fascinating. She starts the opening movement so slowly that it seems there will be no forward momentum at all, but it turns out that this is merely Biret’s rather intellectual approach to the work being put on display: she is at pains to bring out all Beethoven’s lines (which Liszt reproduced with considerable care), even at the expense of some of this symphony’s drama. The second movement is also taken at a very slow pace -- it runs 20 minutes – but it actually comes across better than the first, as Biret expertly builds each section while keeping part of her attention on the overall structure. The third and fourth movements are, in contrast, comparatively light – a flaw not of Biret but of Beethoven, if it is a flaw at all. Biret handles the contrasts well in both, and the very end of the finale is a real triumph of virtuosity. But there is a certain coolness to Biret’s interpretation of these movements, as if she has given her all to the symphony’s emotional heart, the funeral march, and now falls back on a certain distancing – a characteristic that she brings to many of her performances of these Beethoven transcriptions. (Incidentally, listeners interested in owning the entire 19-CD Biret Beethoven series will be confused to see that this release is Volume 13 when the previous one was Volume 9. Volumes 10 through 12 will appear later.)
The performances in Biret’s Concerto Edition are considerably newer than her Beethoven transcriptions. The second volume in this series features Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in a 2004 rendition, and the one-movement No. 3 in a recording from 2007 (actually, No. 3 does have three movements, but only the first is usually played, since the second and third were revised and scored by pianist Sergey Taneyev after Tchaikovsky’s death). There is plenty of Biret’s virtuosity on display in these concertos, and her fondness for slow tempos that border on the ponderous is present as well – especially at the very start of No. 1. Equally clear here is Biret’s thoughtfulness: these are well-designed performances in which the contrast between the works’ episodic elements and their long lines is nicely highlighted. But both performances lack a couple of things. One is headlong emotion: Biret is so tightly in control, especially in No. 1, that the sheer intensity of the work tends to get lost. It is easy to appreciate Biret’s interpretation intellectually, but no one is going to be swept away by it. Secondly, the recording overemphasizes the piano through microphone placement and mixing that relegate the orchestra too far to the background. Even when the ensemble has the main theme, it is the piano’s subsidiary elements that are always heard most prominently. Emil Tabakov paces the Birkent Symphony Orchestra – of which he was music director at the time of these recordings – quite well, but the CD’s sonic design gives everyone but Biret insufficient weight. The CD gets a (+++) rating for Biret’s fine playing and carefully considered interpretations, but it will be of considerably more interest to fans of Biret than to fans of Tchaikovsky.