Idil Biret Archive Edition, Volume 2: Chopin—Mazurkas Op. 17, No. 4 and Op. 56, No.1; Scriabin—Piano Sonata No. 10; Prokofiev—Piano Sonatas Nos. 2 and 7. Idil Biret, piano. IBA. $8.99.
Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel: Piano Music. Heather Schmidt, piano. Naxos. $8.99.
Excellent performances of some fairly well-known music and much that is virtually unknown are offered here in recordings that, despite the distinction of the playing and the highly interesting repertoire, raise some questions that they leave unanswered. The second volume in the Idil Biret Archive Edition, taken from 1970s recordings made for the short-lived label Finnadar, was recorded in what was at the time an unusual way: Biret played through all the works and they were recorded immediately onto a master disc that was then used to produce vinyl discs for distribution. This was, in effect, using a studio to create the atmosphere of a live recording, since nothing could be added to or subtracted from the performance; and it was considered quite an accomplishment at a time when studio recordings were made on tape, which could then be edited (physically, not electronically) so any miscues or elements that were not quite as the performer wanted them could be changed. But this occurred at the expense of quality: in analog recordings, it meant “going down a generation,” thus losing some of the presence of the audio. In the digital era, none of this is relevant; and at a time when live recording is commonplace and done with a quality as high as that of studio performances, the whole situation smacks of ancient history after only three decades. Still, the circumstances of the recording are an interesting footnote to some outstanding performances. Biret clearly had strong feelings about the validity and interest of the works played here, and equally strong views on how to interpret them. Thus, she not only gives a fine rendition of Chopin’s Mazurka, Op. 17, No.4, which is a well-regarded work, but also delivers a highly convincing performance of Op. 56, No. 1, which is usually considered weaker. In the Scriabin, she shows herself highly aware both of the composer’s coloristic effects and of his debt to Romanticism – and her performance flows beautifully throughout. In the two Prokofiev sonatas, in contrast, Biret is all angularity and bite, treating every movement (four in Sonata No. 2, three in Sonata No. 7) as an individual work to be shaped and delivered within its own context. The sonatas do not lose cohesion because of this approach – instead, they become multifaceted. It is obvious that Biret, a cerebral pianist (sometimes too much so), carefully thought through her approach to these works before attacking them for this recording. And her intensity does at times feel like an attack – not on the music but on its complexities. But there is a puzzle here: whence the recording of Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 7? It was not on the Finnadar disc from which the rest of this CD was taken, or indeed on any Finnadar record, and the IBA release does not make it clear just when the recording took place or under what circumstances it was originally made available.
You might expect the puzzle in Heather Schmidt’s new CD of music by Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel to involve the question of why so much fine music – some of it pleasant, some of it strong and genuinely interesting – is so little known. But that is not an issue, really, for Felix Mendelssohn’s older sister (1805-1947) was known to have musical talent nearly at the level of her brother’s, but was entirely shaped by her family (including, to some extent, by Felix himself) into the expected 19th-century-female role of housewife. She performed only once in public and had no chance to publish any of her works until the year before her death – an event that precipitated Felix’s own death just a few months later. What Schmidt’s outstanding playing on this CD shows is that Fanny’s music was at the very least finely honed in “salon” mode, and at most was comparable to Felix’s (he sometimes passed off a work of hers as his own) – and moved in some potentially interesting directions that Fanny never had the chance to follow far. The puzzle in this CD, and it is an unfortunate one, is why the works on the disc are presented in this chosen order. Really, there is no order to them, and for a composer as under-represented in concerts and recordings as Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel, a chronological (or at least musically logical) CD sequence would seem to be de rigueur. What listeners actually get, unless they care to take the time to do a major rearrangement of the CD’s tracks, is Allegro molto in C minor (1846), Notturno in G minor (1838), Sonata in C minor (1824), Lied in E-flat major (1846), Sonata in G minor (1843), Adagio in E-flat major (1840-3), Andante con moto in E major (1846), Sonata o Capriccio (1824), Allegro molto agitato in D minor (1823), and Schluss (1823). This jumping about the decades does Fanny’s music a disservice, because she clearly progressed significantly between 1823 (when she was just 18) and 1846 – the later works show greater passion, clearer structure and more carefully modulated emotion. The Sonata in G minor is a high point, and shows how far Fanny might have gone if her talent had been encouraged. It is both lyrical and dramatic, requiring strong technique as well as emotional understanding – an impressive work by any standards. Other standouts here are the intense Allegro molto in C minor, the lovely Notturno in G minor and the wistful Lied in E-flat major – but in fact, every piece that Schmidt plays has something of interest in it. If the arrangement of the CD is at best puzzling, the power and quality of the music are not. It is long past time for more of Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel’s approximately 500 works to be heard.