April 23, 2015


Idil Biret Schumann Edition. Idil Biret, piano; Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra and Bilkent Symphony Orchestra conducted by Antoni Wit; Borusan Quartet (Esen Kivrak and Olgu Kizilay, violins; Efdal Altun, viola; Çağ Erçağ, cello). IBA. $39.99 (8 CDs).

Rossini: Guillaume Tell. Andrew Foster-Williams, Michael Spyres, Nahuel Di Pierro, Tara Stafford, Raffaele Facciolà, Giulio Pelligra, Artavazd Sargsyan, Marco Filippo Romano, Judith Howarth, Alessandra Volpe; Camerata Bach Choir, Poznań and Virtuosi Brunensis conducted by Antonino Fogliani. Naxos. $49.99 (4 CDs).

     All music releases are intended to bring pleasure to listeners, but it would be exaggerating to call most of them significant in themselves. Once in a while, though, there is something truly important about a recording, or set of recordings, and that is the case with the Idil Biret Schumann Edition, an eight-disc package of previously released performances by the Turkish pianist offered as a boxed set by IBA (Idil Biret Archive) at an exceptional price. What makes this important is not the cost, however, but the value. Like any modern virtuoso, Biret is expert at the standard piano repertoire: she can handle Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Liszt and Rachmaninoff with skill and sensitivity. Also like any modern virtuoso, she makes forays into less-often-played works and excels at presenting them: music by Boulez, Ligeti and Wilhelm Kempff (the great pianist who was Biret’s mentor), among others. But beyond the “standards,” Biret has something that sets her apart from other first-rank pianists, and that something is her way with Schumann. Certain Schumann pieces are absolute “musts” for pianists: the Piano Concerto, Kinderszenen and Fantasie in C, Op. 17. And a few others are heard from top pianists from time to time. But Biret performs and records Schumann more extensively – and, significantly, with more attentiveness and involvement – than do most other pianists, and the Idil Biret Schumann Edition is important because it showcases her exceptional way with this composer’s music and her exceptional sensitivity to its many (and frequently conflicting) moods. This shows even in Schumann’s best-known piano music. In the Piano Concerto, for example, Biret opts for slower-than-usual tempos in the first and third movements, with the first in particular seeming to move at an unusually measured pace because of the evenness of Biret’s finger work and her comparatively modest use of pedals. The second movement is lyrical and warm, but not overwrought, while the finale is stately – and grander than in most other performances. It is certainly possible to critique this performance as somewhat over-thought, more intellectual than it needs to be; and this, indeed, is a periodic issue in all Biret’s performances, whose emotive nature sometimes takes a back seat to an analytical approach. But at the same time, this concerto gains stature and solidity with Biret that it rarely attains with other performers. Similarly, Kinderszenen here sounds very definitely like the attempt by an adult to look back on scenes of childhood with a mixture of nostalgia and objectivity. And the Fantasie in C is treated as something akin to (but not quite identical to) a sonata, its differing moods delineated clearly and its final, meditative section given considerable weight and a very effective conclusion.

     But it is through the Schumann works that are heard less often that listeners will really come to appreciate Biret’s excellence in this repertoire. The Introduction and Allegro appassionato, Op. 92 and Introduction and Concert Allegro, Op. 134 get firm, knowing and involving performances from both Biret and the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra under Antoni Wit (this is a better ensemble than the Bilkent Symphony Orchestra, which is used in the Concerto). The Abegg Variations, Op. 1 are handled with clarity and delicacy throughout. The Toccata, Op. 7 gets full display-piece treatment. The mercurial Sonata No. 2 in G minor is explored throughout its whole variety of moods, right through its concluding faster-and-faster Presto. In Kreisleriana, Biret’s careful attentiveness to the work’s contrasting aspects produces a performance by turns agitated, expressive, stormy, gentle, frenetic and tranquil. Biret is a touch too staid in Blumenstück, which is almost but not quite salon music, but again, she does an excellent job negotiating the work’s shifting moods. Faschingsschwank aus Wien (“Carnival in Vienna”), which is not particularly profound or nuanced, gets a knowing performance that is fully attentive to the work’s melodic charms. The Piano Quintet shows Biret to be quite capable of receding toward (if not quite into) the background when necessary, becoming a full partner with strings in the first two movements before shining forth to begin the third and dominating the discussion through to the work’s end – with the Borusan Quartet being perhaps a touch too deferential to her, but offering fine ensemble support.

     And so on and so forth, throughout this entire first-rate set. There are bonuses here, too. One is Tchaikovsky’s Album for the Young, Op. 39, a set of 24 short movements (many under a minute) that capture old Russian childhood feelings and memories in elegant miniature – and that are correctly handled by Biret with a mood very different from that of Schumann’s Kinderszenen. Another bonus is Debussy’s Children’s Corner Suite, to which Biret brings just the right mixture of sly humor, elegance, and jubilation. And the eighth and last disc in the box is a real treat for Biret fans, including her earliest radio appearances, from 1949 and 1953 (featuring interview segments as well as performances, including a substantial one in 1953 of Bach’s Fantaisie Chromatique et Fugue). Also on this CD is Biret’s 1959 version of Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, Op. 12, which contrasts fascinatingly with the version from 2000 heard elsewhere in the set: emphases have changed and there is certainly greater overall subtlety in the later interpretation, but Biret’s musicianship was obviously already very finely honed in 1959, when she was 18 – and, for that matter, she already had excellent musical and performance instincts as far back as 1949, when she was only eight.  The Idil Biret Schumann Edition is important for the performances, true, but even more so for the unusually detailed portrait it provides of an expert pianist with genuine affinity for some less-often-performed music that allows her to display her thoughtfulness, analytical ability and innate understanding of a great composer in ways that set her apart from other highly talented modern virtuosi.

     The Naxos release of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell is an important one for a different reason. Amazingly, there has never before been a complete recording of the sprawling, uncut four-act version of Rossini’s last opera – the work after which he retired to enjoy life, live on a pension (which he ended up having to fight to obtain), and write volume upon volume of Péchés de vieillesse (“Sins of Old Age”) for all sorts of instrumental and vocal combinations. This recording of Guillaume Tell was made from four live performances at the “Rossini in Wildbad” festival in Germany, with a multinational cast that makes up in enthusiasm what it occasionally lacks in sheer vocal heft. Rossini made a whole series of cuts and changes in Guillaume Tell after completing it, understanding the exigencies of theatrical production exceptionally well and having a remarkably ego-free approach to his operas. The result is that much of the music on this four-CD set will be completely unfamiliar to listeners. The opera in its original form is very long indeed – Meyerbeer length, in fact: four hours of music. It is filled with gloriously tuneful material but also with, it must be said, a certain amount of padding and some uninspired material – as, indeed, was the norm in Rossini’s operas. The themes used in the justly renowned overture all have significant roles in the action, and the famous scene in which Tell shoots an arrow through an apple that is on the head of his son, Jemmy, is one of high drama. Storms and calm, hymns to freedom and insistence on obedience, a love story involving two subsidiary characters who become germane and then crucial to the eventual happy outcome (Arnold, representing the oppressed Swiss, and Mathilde, from the oppressing Hapsburgs, who eventually joins Arnold in both love and political solidarity) – all these elements and more tumble over one another through a plot filled with rescues, defiance, lyricism, anger, patriotism and bravado. Guillaume Tell is quite an opera; and yes, it is somewhat over-long, if only because parts of it bog down here and there and because the villain of the piece, Gesler, does not even appear until the third act. The positives of the complete version far outweigh the negatives, however, and the soloists here clearly give their all to the production: if none of them is ne plus ultra, certainly none is inadequate.

     Guillaume Tell is an ensemble piece through most of its length – a fact showcased in this recording in a 24-minute supplement on the fourth CD. This includes alternative versions of several numbers and the revised conclusion that Rossini prepared for the three-act version staged in Paris in 1831. In the supplementary material, different singers take some of the roles while the same singers are used in others – an indication of the overall ensemble approach evident throughout the production. Conductor Antonino Fogliani holds things together from start to finish and keeps the work moving at a deliberate, carefully chosen pace that allows the material to unfold naturally without seeming rushed or held back. This middle-of-the-road approach generally serves the opera well, although occasionally a little more fire and intensity would have been welcome. Also welcome would have been a libretto with English translation: Naxos provides an unusually thorough summary of the action in this set’s booklet, but makes only the French-language libretto, untranslated, available online. Since the complete opera has not been recorded before, there is really no readily available source for a complete, translated libretto – although the gist of what is going on is certainly clear from the summary in the booklet. Still, an undertaking as interesting and, yes, important as this one would have been better served by providing listeners with the means to follow exactly what is being said and sung. Nevertheless, this is an important release, allowing opera lovers to hear for the first time just what all the fuss was about when Rossini presented his sprawling, intense, sometimes overdone, highly patriotic final opera – capping a career that spanned two decades but leading to a life in which, for a variety of reasons, there were to be no further operas until the composer’s death 39 years after Guillaume Tell.

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