May 14, 2009


Idil Biret Beethoven Edition, Volume 8: Piano Sonatas Nos. 23 (“Appassionata”), 28 and 31. Idil Biret, piano. IBA. $8.99.

Idil Biret Beethoven Edition, Volume 9: Symphonies Nos. 7 and 8 (Liszt Piano Transcriptions). Idil Biret, piano. IBA. $8.99.

Idil Biret Concerto Edition, Volume 1: Schumann—Piano Concerto; Grieg—Piano Concerto. Idil Biret, piano; Bilkent Symphony Orchestra conducted by Antoni Wit. IBA. $8.99.

     Although the fascinating Idil Biret Beethoven Edition is not yet halfway through its projected 19 volumes, another Idil Biret Edition is already starting. The Beethoven series continues to have the sonatas as its high points, although Biret’s “Appassionata” is a touch too quirky to be wholeheartedly recommended. It is played with very considerable attention to detail, so that, for instance, figurations rarely heard in the left hand when the right has the melody come through quite clearly. But to accomplish this, Biret uses mostly slow tempos; and what she attains in clarity, she loses in sweep and emotion. This is a cool “Appassionata” rather than a deeply felt one – highly accomplished and very well played, but somewhat too plodding (especially in the main section of the finale) to make the work’s title (given it by its publisher) a good fit. The two later sonatas here, however, are gems. No. 28 has both delicacy and drive, with a pleasant sense of freshness throughout. And No. 31 has just the right balance of solidity and emotionalism, culminating in a very effective handling of the last movement’s fugue – Biret makes the contrapuntal lines clear while still including Beethoven’s near-Romantic sweep and drama.

     Biret’s handling of Liszt’s transcriptions of Beethoven’s symphonies is still fine but still not up to her sonata recordings, which were made later (Volume 8 of the Biret Beethoven Edition dates to 2001, Volume 9 to 1986). Symphony No. 7 simply drags too much to be effective – it is more than six minutes before Biret even gets to the Vivace section of the first movement. The Allegretto is pleasant and nicely paced, but the finale is so far from “the apotheosis of the dance” (Wagner’s description of this symphony) that it simply plods. No. 8 is much better. The first movement is not exactly “con brio,” but the second has a pleasant “scherzando” feeling about it, the third contrasts with it effectively, and the finale has a sense of hustle that leads to a very effective conclusion (this is one of the few places in the transcriptions in which Liszt dropped Beethoven’s wide range to create a more effective piano finish). Biret brings out Beethoven’s subtleties very well in playing the symphonies, but she tends to lose sight of the overall arch of the works, making her performances more interesting than compelling.

     The first volume of Biret’s Concerto Edition, recorded in 2006, features comparatively slow tempos as well, a state of affairs that works better in Grieg’s concerto than in Schumann’s. Here the interplay between Biret and the Bilkent Symphony Orchestra under Antoni Wit is better than in the performers’ Beethoven concertos, in which the orchestra has sounded rather pale. For the Schumann and Grieg, it sounds fuller and more strongly committed to the music, and this makes it a fine foil for Biret, whose big sound and willingness to turn phrases into proclamations lead to solid, even stately performances. The Schumann tends to be a little stiff as Biret performs it, especially in the first movement (which is supposed to be played “affettuoso”), but the Grieg gets plenty of room to breathe here, and as a result has some of the expansiveness associated with Norway – an effect for which the composer was certainly striving, in light of his use of the Norwegian halling for the primary dance rhythm of the finale. Biret’s performances of these concertos and the Beethoven repertoire may not be definitive – it can certainly be argued that no one’s are – but she shows highly impressive range and great thoughtfulness in all these works, making all the Idil Biret Archives recordings worth hearing for their insights and the sheer quality of Biret’s pianism.

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