Idil Biret Beethoven Edition, Volume 16: Piano Sonatas Nos.6, 12 and 15 (“Pastoral”). Idil Biret, piano. IBA. $8.99.
Idil Biret Archive Edition, Volume 3: André Boucourechliev—Archipel IV; Niccolò Castiglioni—Cangianti; Leo Brouwer—Sonata Pian e Forte; İlhan Mimaroğlu—Session. Idil Biret, piano. IBA. $8.99.
Schoenberg: String Trio, Op. 45 (1946); Four Pieces for Mixed Chorus, Op. 27 (1925); Three Satires for Mixed Chorus, Op. 28 (1925-26); Septet-Suite, Op. 29 (1925-26); Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene, Op. 34 (1929-30). Soloists and chamber musicians, Simon Joly Chorale, members of the London Sinfonietta, and London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Robert Craft. Naxos. $8.99.
The two new releases in the ongoing IBA series devoted to the pianism of Idil Biret are beautiful examples of this pianist’s range of talent and artistry – and will clearly be appreciated by very different audiences. Their release at the same time has little meaning, since they were recorded decades apart: the Beethoven CD in 2003 and 2005, the one of then-new piano music in 1976. But it is striking, hearing the discs in close proximity, to realize just how many things Biret does well, with intensity and understanding and with the use of a strong musical intellect as well as sheer technique.
Actually, Biret’s intellect sometimes gets in the way of full expression of some pieces’ expressive potential, as occurs to an extent in Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Sonata, Op. 28. Although this is the latest sonata recorded here, it still predates the Second Symphony, and there is a certain pleasant openness and even jollity to the themes to complement sections of drama and intensity. It is, however, in the more exploratory parts of the sonata that Biret excels: she thinks everything through so carefully that the playfulness of the Scherzo, for example, is less than it can be. Similarly, in Sonata No. 6, Op. 10, No. 2, the Haydnesque turns of the first and third movements are somewhat less sprightly and therefore less effective than the minor-key middle movement, whose Allegretto tempo designation belies its seriousness. In Sonata No. 12, Op. 26, the best movement is the third, a funeral march to which Biret gives great forcefulness – although the opening movement, a set of variations, is also quite impressive. Biret’s carefully considered performances may be a little dry for some tastes, but there is no question that she thinks carefully about what she wants to do in this music, and then does precisely that.
The re-release of hyper-modern 20th-century piano works shows Biret in quite a different light. Written between 1959 and 1978, the four pieces on what was originally a recording for the short-lived Finnadar label have not worn particularly well. Thirty to 50 years after their creation, they sound far more dated – far more like pieces of a particular time and a particular form of musical experimentation – than do Beethoven’s much earlier experiments in design and sonority. İlhan Mimaroğlu, the composer whose proposal actually led to the creation of Finnadar, calls Session “agitprop music.” It includes his own paraphrases of Karl Marx quotations plus speaking roles for characters designated as The Attorney, The Accountant, The Publicist and The Artist (Biret). The piano is almost incidental to this electromagnetic-tape assemblage, which may have once seemed daring but now comes across as merely sad. André Boucourechliev’s Archipel IV is one of those aleatoric works seemingly constructed more for the composer’s sake than for that of any audience: it is deliberately designed to have its elements shuffled so each performance is entirely different – which seems to render any recording irrelevant, since the piece will never be heard that way again. Niccolò Castiglioni’s Cangianti includes both determined elements (based on the precision available when creating electronic music) and indeterminate ones (such as duration of those elements). Leo Brouwer’s Sonata Pian e Forte plays games with the whole notion of defined and undefined elements – for example, one “defined element” is “improvisation,” and one element is specified as a quotation from a Scriabin sonata (but which sonata is decided by the performer). This sort of music is an acquired taste that most listeners have never acquired. Biret’s re-release, which gets a (+++) rating, will make no converts to these works, but it certainly shows her capabilities in pieces that go well beyond any sort of traditional repertoire – for her and other pianists.
Arnold Schoenberg’s works are much older than those on the Biret CD – Schoenberg, after all, died in 1951 – but many listeners still have trouble absorbing them even today. Robert Craft, the greatest living exponent of this music, continues his thoroughly researched and meticulously presented Schoenberg cycle in a new (++++) CD consisting mostly of chamber and choral music. These recordings were made between 1994 and 2005, and those of the Septet-Suite and Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene (the only piece for full orchestra here) have been previously released. The String Trio, which dates to the same time as A Survivor from Warsaw, is highly virtuosic and intense. The Four Pieces for Mixed Chorus are carefully constructed to go with their texts, two of which Schoenberg wrote himself – it is a shame that none of the texts is provided. The Three Satires for Mixed Chorus are both more accessible and less interesting: Schoenberg wrote all the texts himself (but again, they are not given with the CD) and wrote both words and music to attack some of the contemporary composers (unnamed) who had previously attacked him. The Satires are comparatively easy to follow but not really indicative of Schoenberg’s style – nor were they intended to be. The Septet-Suite is somewhat out of character, too, in its lightheartedness, but it is a much more successful work, very complex in construction but sounding well to listeners without requiring them to understand its underlying intricacies. Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene, written for an imaginary film, is even easier to follow, using a 12-tone framework but falling clearly into three sections that Schoenberg called “Threatening Danger, Fear, Catastrophe.” All the playing of all these works is exemplary both technically and in understanding of the composer’s structures and overall approach to his material – not always easy music to hear, even in the 21st century, but music whose performers handle it with a committed intensity that is easy to follow and understand.