August 09, 2012

(++++) IMPRESSIVE PIANISM


Idil Biret Solo Edition, Volume 3: Liszt—12 Grandes Etudes (1837). Idil Biret, piano. IBA. $9.99.

Idil Biret Solo Edition, Volume 4: Schumann—Abegg Variations; Sonata No. 2; Fantasie, Op.17; Toccata, Op. 7. Idil Biret, piano. IBA. $9.99.

David Del Tredici: Complete Piano Works, Volume 1—Aeolian Ballade (2008); Ballad in Lavender (2004); Ballad in Yellow (1997); S/M Ballade (2006); Gotham Glory (Four Scenes of New York City) (2004). Marc Peloquin, piano. Naxos. $9.99.

      The Idil Biret Solo Edition, featuring recent rather than historical performances by the Turkish pianist, is turning out to be a truly exceptional experience.  The IBA (Idil Biret Archive) label has been releasing a flood of Biret recordings in “Beethoven,” “Concerto” and “Archive” series, but the Solo Edition ones are in some ways the most impressive of all.  Biret’s handling of the rarely performed 1837 Grandes Etudes by Liszt is simply magnificent.  This set is the second of three, the first dating to 1826 (the year Liszt turned 15) and the third, which is the one almost always heard, to 1851 (the Transcendental Etudes). The difficulty level of the 1837 set is very high, the piano writing is less refined than in the later set but more youthful and daring, and the overall effect is of glitter, grit and high-octane virtuosity throughout.  The 1837 set is certainly less carefully worked through than the later one, but its sheer enthusiasm is infectious, and its keyboard writing makes up in intensity what it lacks in subtlety.  Essentially, the 1837 set is less mature than the 1851 one – and that brings many pleasures as well as a certain level of display for its own sake.  Biret’s playing in this 2011 performance is simply outstanding.  The tremendous difficulties of, for example, Nos. 5 (its tempo designated Egualmente) and 8 (Presto strepitoso) are clear but become almost irrelevant as Biret, a very cerebral pianist, thinks through the music and brings it exactly where she wants it to go.  One other example of Biret’s thoughtfulness, among many: in No. 11, at 11 minutes the longest of these pieces (and one that Liszt shortened in 1851), Biret uses sensitivity and absolute mastery of the keyboard to produce a work of gorgeous lyricism, more a miniature tone poem than a “mere” etude.  Indeed, there is nothing “mere” about any of these works – the set of 12 takes 80 minutes to play – and Biret fully plumbs the depths of the pieces’ emotions while scaling the heights of intensity and pianism that they demand.

      Robert Schumann, for one, did not think much of the 1837 set of Liszt’s etudes, preferring the 1826 version.  But Schumann came to regard Liszt very highly, dedicating his Fantasie, Op. 17 to Liszt.  This is one of the works that Biret performs on her new Schumann CD for IBA – and it really is new, having been recorded in January of this year.  The complexities and technical demands of Schumann’s music are quite different from those of Liszt, and Biret accordingly handles this music with a lighter touch and considerable attention to its structure.  The lengthy Fantasie comes across almost as a sonata, with three distinct movements, the first of which quotes Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.  The first two parts of the work are more hectic, the third more meditative, and Biret brings out the differing sections sure-handedly and with great skill.  The Abegg Variations, Schumann’s Op. 1, are more straightforward, and here Biret opts for clarity of line and delicacy throughout, producing an altogether winning performance.  The Toccata, Op. 7, on the other hand, is a pure display piece – Clara Wieck, later Clara Schumann, used it often in her recitals – and Biret plays it for all it is worth, which turns out to be quite a bit.  She also serves the sheer drama and enthusiasm of the fourth and last movement of the Sonata No. 2 in G minor very well: this very fast rondo (marked Presto and getting even speedier toward its conclusion) is a bright and brilliant tour de force that caps a work of greatly varying moods, from the intensity of the first movement to the lyricism of the second and rather jagged energy of the Scherzo.  In some of the earlier recordings released by IBA, Biret has stood a bit apart from or above the music, thinking about it so carefully that a certain level of emotional involvement was diminished.  Not so on either of these Solo Edition CDs: Biret is fully involved in the music, highly expressive as well as totally in command of her instrument, and the result is two discs filled with excellence from start to finish.

      The excellence of the Naxos release of piano music by David Del Tredici (born 1937) is of a different sort, but one that has its roots, in a sense, in the Romantic era. Indeed, one piece here, Ballad in Lavender, quotes Schumann (Kreisleriana) rather liberally.  But the Romantic connection goes beyond that.  It was late in life that Brahms, who had stopped composing, discovered the delights of the solo clarinet, thanks to Richard Mühlfeld – the result being some of the composer’s most beautiful and elegant pieces. Del Tredici has not stopped composing, but he too has found a late-in-life performer as a muse: pianist Marc Peloquin, who commissioned S/M Ballade and is now recording all Del Tredici’s piano works – this is the first volume of a planned three-CD series.  Del Tredici is supervising the recordings himself, so they deserve to be called definitive.  More importantly for listeners, this first disc contains some very fine and interestingly constructed music.  In style, Del Tredici is a neo-Romantic, using tonality to anchor his pieces even when he deliberately violates conventions (as by having bits of Kreisleriana performed atop a persistent, dissonant and rather annoying G-flat).  The works here come from various emotional directions, and each is effective in its own way. Aeolian Ballade is a prelude and fugue, Ballad in Lavender more of a fantasy, Ballad in Yellow a song transcription, and S/M Ballade a gigantic display piece requiring tremendous virtuosity and the ability to play two differing rhythms against each other for long stretches.  The longest work here, the four-movement Gotham Glory, is a tribute to New York City that contains a prelude (“West Village Morning”) and fugue (“Museum Piece,” a clever title that refers both to the city’s museums and to the fugal form itself).  The third movement is an unusual tribute to the absent World Trade Center.  It is called “Missing Towers” and described as a “perpetual canon,” which turns out to mean that most of the movement is in two voices constantly following each other.  The biggest movement, as long as the other three put together, is the finale, an elaborate and exhilarating Grand Fantasy on Émile Waldteufel’s The Skaters’ Waltz that is a tribute to Wollman Rink and as demanding as any pianist could wish, sounding something like a 21st-century transcription and expansion by Leopold Godowsky.  Peloquin’s handling of all this music fully repays Del Tredici’s admiration of his skill and will have listeners eager to hear the other CDs in this series.

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