September 08, 2011


Idil Biret Archive Edition, Volumes 9 and 10: Berlioz—Symphonie fantastique and Harold in Italy, arranged by Franz Liszt. Idil Biret, piano; Ruşen Güneş, viola. IBA. $19.99 (2 CDs).

Weill: Songs and instrumental arrangements from “The Threepenny Opera,” “Mahagonny,” “Happy End,” “Silbersee” and others. Lotte Lenya, Kurt Weill, Ernst Busch, Theo Mackeben, Otto Klemperer and others. Capriccio. $16.99 (2 CDs).

      The most interesting release yet in the Idil Biret Archives edition of the Turkish pianist’s performances from the 1970s until today, the two-CD compilation of Biret’s rendition of two Liszt arrangements of works by Berlioz is fascinating on almost every level. There are multiple layers of history here. Berlioz and Liszt met in 1830 and were longtime supporters of each other’s music: Berlioz dedicated his Damnation of Faust to Liszt, and Liszt dedicated his Faust Symphony to Berlioz. Liszt was also determined to bring Berlioz’ music to a wider audience — the orchestral effects and coloration for which Berlioz is justly admired today, and his stretching of older forms into something entirely new, did not always go over well with concert audiences; and putting on orchestral performances was more difficult and costly than making music available in piano transcriptions. Liszt transcribed the Symphonie fantastique for solo piano in 1833, and transcribed Harold in Italy not once but twice — in 1833 for solo piano and in 1836 for piano and viola. The transcriptions are exceptionally difficult to play, but like Liszt’s transcriptions of Beethoven’s symphonies, they are not virtuoso showpieces for their own sake. Rather, they elucidate elements of the orchestral music in remarkable ways — although they are not as completely true to Berlioz as Liszt was to Beethoven, Liszt here being somewhat more inclined to produce some excellent pianistic effects that are not grounded in the original works. Biret has her own history here: Symphonie fantastique was recorded in 1978 and originally released on the short-lived Finnadar label, while Harold in Italy is a brand-new recording made in January of this year. The 33 years between the recordings have led to no deterioration of Biret’s formidable technique or the formidable intellect behind it — indeed, to the extent that there is anything to criticize in these readings, it is that they somewhat lack a feeling of abandon in the finales (the “dream of a witches’ Sabbath” and “orgy of brigands”). Biret is remarkably in control, perhaps a touch too much so in the final movements; likewise, in the waltz of Symphonie fantastique, a little more rhythmic swing would have been welcome. But these are minor matters in an overall recording that is exemplary. Biret brings out Berlioz’ themes and rhythms to fine effect, and even though the orchestral color so crucial to Symphonie fantastique is missing, there are some ways in which the piano treatment (which Biret has slightly modified from Liszt’s in some places) makes the structure of Symphonie fantastique even clearer than does the original version. The entire achievement is a remarkable one, both musically and in terms of pianistic virtuosity: Biret’s performance is worth hearing again and again, no matter how familiar the listener already is with Berlioz’ original. And her reading of Harold in Italy is almost as good. The Liszt adaptation here is a particularly interesting one because Liszt, who created little in the way of chamber music, includes the solo viola for which Berlioz calls in the original work. Ruşen Güneş gives a finely tailored performance of music that Liszt sometimes lifted essentially intact from Berlioz, sometimes modified slightly to bring out one effect or another. Interestingly, the viola, which can tend to be subsumed into the orchestra in most Harold in Italy performances (because the work is not really a concerto but a symphonic piece with viola obbligato), comes through more clearly here, its role in the story more forthright and Berlioz’ writing for it more transparent with only the piano accompanying it. This Harold in Italy never really sounds like chamber music — the piano is the lead instrument throughout — but the balance between Biret and Güneş is admirably handled, both players are well in tune with both Berlioz and Liszt, and the overall effect of hearing Harold in Italy in this form is nothing less than exhilarating.

      The exhilaration is more emotional than strictly musical in the new Capriccio release of music by Kurt Weill as performed by many of the original singers and players of the works. Here the historical element of the recordings is their primary reason for being and their main value, and anyone hoping for musical continuity or high-quality sound will be disappointed. These are recordings originally made for 78-rpm discs, which could hold about three minutes of music per side; and they constitute something of a “greatest hits” compilation as interpreted by performers from Weimar Germany and elsewhere in Europe. There is a great deal of music here, nearly two-and-a-half hours, and a great deal of repetition: three complete versions of “Pirate Jenny,” three of the “Moritat” and four of the “Kanonensong” from The Threepenny Opera, for example, plus arrangements that are sometimes vocal, sometimes instrumental, sometimes combined with other music from the same work. There are dance arrangements and woodwind arrangements as well as varying vocal stylings, with Lotte Lenya’s being in retrospect the most authentic but certainly not the only ones worth hearing. The entire first CD is devoted to The Threepenny Opera, but the second disc is equally interesting. It includes, among other things, no fewer than five versions of “Surabaya-Johnny” from Happy End, one of them featuring Lenya singing as Weill himself plays a piano arrangement that he made of this and five other songs. These six songs were recorded in 1942, when Lenya’s voice was in a rarely heard register: neither as high as in her earlier recordings nor as low and harsh as in her later ones. There are other rarities on this CD as well, including two songs Weill wrote to further the Allies’ war effort against the Nazis and several excerpts, including a medley, from Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. There are no texts provided for any of the vocal elements, which is unfortunate, especially since the words cannot always be clearly heard and in some cases (such as those of the World War II songs) are scarcely easy to find. But in a certain sense, the words are not the point here: these CDs provide an opportunity, “through a glass darkly” (as it were), to hear Weill’s music, well-known and less-known, performed when it was fresh rather than established, under Weill’s own auspices or with his overt or tacit approval. These discs are a window into the distant past — more than 80 years in some cases — and as such cannot and should not be held to the quality standards of modern recordings. Rather, they should be seen and heard as important documentation of significant 20th-century music — performances against which it is quite fair to compare more-modern, better-sounding ones that may have fewer rough edges but cannot possibly match these for authenticity.

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