December 23, 2010


Idil Biret Solo Edition, Volume 1: Liszt—Sonata in B Minor; Grandes Etudes de Paganini. Idil Biret, piano. IBA. $8.99.

Idil Biret Archive Edition, Volume 8: Beethoven—Sonatas Nos. 8 (“Pathétique”) and 29 (“Hammerklavier”). Idil Biret, piano. IBA. $8.99.

Ries: Piano Sonatas and Sonatinas, Volume 3—Sonata in C Major, Op. 9, No. 2; Sonata in F-sharp minor (“L’infortunée”), Op. 26; The Dream, Op. 49. Susan Kagan, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

Ries: Piano Sonatas and Sonatinas, Volume 4—Sonata in D major, Op. 9, No. 1; Sonata in A-flat major, Op. 141. Susan Kagan, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

     Fans of Turkish pianist Idil Biret, who may have been trying to keep up with the impressive number of her recordings being released on the IBA (Idil Biret Archives) label, now have yet another IBA series to appreciate – or contend with. And on top of that, an existing IBA series is complicating decision-making for listeners who may want to do something other than collect every disc that IBA ever releases. These are not bad problems to have: Biret is a wonderful pianist, with technique to spare and a thoughtful approach to the music she plays that, when it works well and does not interfere with a certain feeling of abandon and apparent spontaneity, produces top-notch recordings that show Biret to be a worthy successor to her mentor, Wilhelm Kempff. The two newest IBA releases are in fact among the label’s most impressive, for all that they may create some confusion among collectors.

     What is new here is the Idil Biret Solo Edition, whose very first volume includes an outstanding performance of an exceptionally difficult piece, and one that Biret has clearly thought through to an unusually impressive degree: Liszt’s monumental Sonata in B Minor. More an extended tone poem than a sonata in a traditional sense, this half-hour work progresses through six movements (or six sections of one gigantic movement) with implacability and tremendous demands on the pianist’s technique. The recording here is the most recent released on any CD by IBA, dating to January 2010, and it shows that Biret, who is now 69, has lost none of her fervor or pianistic or analytical ability. Her Liszt performance soars: she tracks the multiple themes that permeate it with skill, providing it with overall structural integrity – so crucial in this work, which can easily get away from the performer if not held tightly in check. Biret emphasizes the unity of the sonata’s disparate elements, effectively bringing out everything from the uses and reuses of the themes to the fugal handling of part of the second theme – and she observes the work’s wide-ranging dynamics very impressively indeed. This is, in short, a performance that succeeds on all levels. Next to the sonata, the Grandes Etudes de Paganini seem almost slight – not in their virtuosic requirements, which are enormous, but in their musical content. Biret’s performance here, which dates to 1987, is not quite as impressive as her reading of the sonata, largely because her thoughtfulness is somewhat misplaced in a series of pieces that are all about display and unceasing virtuosity. These studies are on works as different – and yet as similar – as Paganini’s solo-violin etudes and the famous “La Campanella” finale of his second violin concerto. Liszt’s transformation of the pieces for piano is extremely clever and very, very difficult, and certainly Biret handles the technical demands here quite well. What the performance lacks is a certain élan, perhaps a touch of insouciance, as if it is no big deal to toss off all these fireworks. Biret’s pianism is nevertheless highly impressive, and the new Idil Biret Solo Edition is poised to be a real treat for her fans.

     The Idil Biret Archive Edition, however, is now making things rather complex. The latest volume in this series, which is the eighth, includes two Beethoven sonatas recorded in 1985 – one of which, the “Pathétique,” is already available in the Idil Biret Beethoven Edition, Volume 12, which in turn is the sixth volume of the sonatas in that edition (the numbering is more than slightly confusing). The Beethoven Edition reading of the “Pathétique” dates to 2006. The “Hammerklavier” has yet to appear in the Beethoven series but will surely do so in the future. Will listeners, even devoted Biret fans, want multiple Biret performances of the same music from different times, sold in different IBA series? This is not an easy question to answer, since the Archive Edition version of the “Pathétique” differs in several ways from the Beethoven Edition reading, but not to such an extent that a listener will likely feel the need to own both. The Archive Edition recording is speedier in all three movements, especially the first, and has a generally lighter feel to it than the Beethoven Edition one. Biret here clearly avoids an overly Romantic view of this sonata, keeping it expressive but within the bounds of Mozart and early Beethoven. The finale, in particular, trips along effectively. Neither of the two Biret recordings is better or worse – they are simply different, showing her somewhat different views of this music two decades apart. As for the Archive Edition version of the “Hammerklaivier,” it is very fine indeed. The huge sonata marches strongly from the start in Biret’s interpretation, and she manages to keep its sprawl coherent through her entire 46-and-a-half-minute performance – a most impressive achievement. The one movement that is a touch less successful than the others is the third, which Biret does not hesitate to take as slowly as its tempo indication of Adagio sostenuto indicates – but which tends to flag rhythmically from time to time, losing some of its admittedly slow forward motion. Nevertheless, this is a highly successful performance of a very difficult sonata, showing again – if additional showings are needed – that Biret and Beethoven go together very, very well.

     The sonatas by Beethoven’s sometime pupil, Ferdinand Ries, are far lesser creations than those of the master, but Susan Kagan’s ongoing recordings of them make a strong case for them to be heard at least occasionally. The works in both volumes 3 and 4 of Kagan’s series are unmistakably in line with those in the first two volumes: melodically charming, strong in their forward impetus, and existing mostly on the borderline between Classical times and Romantic. Far less challenging to play or hear than Beethoven’s sonatas, those by Ries nevertheless have numerous moments of virtuosity and quite a few of lucidity. And some of Ries’ piano works definitely look forward. The Dream, for example, stands out in Kagan’s third volume as a moody tone poem – and, at nearly 19 minutes, a substantial one. It meanders like a fantasy, its moods shifting almost capriciously, and eventually ends with a level of playfulness somewhat out of keeping with its earlier emotional underpinnings; but taken as a whole, it is a very fine and convincing work – and one that shows Ries exploring directions that Beethoven himself did not. On the other hand, the same volume’s Op. 26 sonata – “The Unfortunate,” the only Ries sonata with a title – shows the composer clearly walking in Beethoven’s footsteps: this work, dating to 1808, is very similar in style and mood to Beethoven’s “Pathétique” sonata of 1799, of which it seems a pale reflection (although it is written in the key of Haydn’s “Farewell” symphony). In volume 4 of the Ries series, the more interesting work is the Op. 141 sonata, the second-to-last that Ries composed. It dates to 1826, the year before Beethoven’s death, and was written for a piano with greater range and sonorousness than those in use in earlier times. Here the first movement, the most successful of the three, mixes fingerings that will remind listeners of Chopin with sections of considerable drama. The second movement is expressive enough, but shows much of Beethoven’s influence, as do so many of Ries’ works, and therefore seems rather derivative; while the concluding rondo, which bounces along in a bright and effective manner, seems rather too light and buoyant for what has come before. The Ries works in Kagan’s third and fourth volumes confirm the impression made by those in the first and second: Ries was more craftsman than innovator, certainly a skilled pianist and fine composer for his instrument, but only rarely able to move beyond Beethoven’s shadow to develop works stamped with his individual personality. And yet all these rarely played sonatas have elements of interest – in some cases, quite a few of them – and are worth hearing at least once in a while.

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