September 24, 2009


Idil Biret Beethoven Edition, Volume 11: Piano Concerto No. 5; Choral Fantasia. Idil Biret, piano. Turkish State Polyphonic Chorus and Bilkent Symphony Orchestra conducted by Antoni Wit. IBA. $8.99.

Idil Biret Beethoven Edition, Volumes 14-15: Symphonies Nos. 6 and 9 (Liszt Piano Transcriptions). Idil Biret, piano. IBA. $17.99 (2 CDs).

Idil Biret Concerto Edition, Volume 3: Saint-Saëns—Piano Concerto No. 5; Ravel: Piano Concerto in G; Piano Concerto in D for the Left Hand. Idil Biret, piano. Bilkent Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jean Fournet. IBA. $8.99.

     It is becoming increasingly difficult to keep up with the multitude of Idil Biret Archives releases of the Turkish pianist’s diverse and impressive recordings, both old and new. The Beethoven Edition CDs are really three series in one: the concertos, the sonatas and the Liszt transcriptions of the symphonies. And the Beethoven concerto sub-series is not to be confused with the Concerto Edition, which includes works by composers other than Beethoven. The Beethoven Edition itself is due to have 19 volumes, but Volume 12 has not yet been released – although 13 through 15 have. And the various recordings showcase Biret, who was born in 1941, at very different times in her career. The three latest IBA releases include works recorded just last year (Volume 11); ones recorded in 1986 (Volumes 14-15); and, in Volume 3 of the Concerto Edition, a Saint-Saëns performance from 1999, a Ravel G Major from 1998 and a Ravel Left-Hand Concerto from 1996.

     What makes this confusion worth wading through are the artist at its center and the intellectual as well as emotional stimulation of hearing her highly organized, carefully structured approach to all this music – an approach that has remained remarkably consistent through the decades. Biret’s formidable technical skill is always placed at the service of carefully analyzed, fully thought-through interpretations that frequently show familiar works in a new light. This is not to say that her readings will be to all tastes. Quite the contrary: her latest CD of Liszt transcriptions, for example, can actually be difficult to endure, played at what is often so grindingly slow a pace that the Ninth – the transcription over which Liszt labored longest and with the most misgivings – lasts almost an hour and a half, putting it at or beyond nearly all the symphonies by Mahler. In fact, the finale – which runs 32 minutes here – lasts nearly as long as Mahler’s longest single symphonic movement (the first movement of his Third Symphony). This is not Beethoven for every listener and probably not even for most – it is Beethoven for committed musicians who really want to understand the underlying skeletal framework of the composer’s final symphony, hear in great detail how the harmonies are built, how the themes relate to each other, how the careful choice of key structure seems to make the use of a chorus in the finale inevitable – a fascinating realization since, of course, there is no chorus in Liszt’s transcription. This is not at all an accessible performance, but it is one of great depth and intellectual rigor.

     Similarly, Biret keeps things slow and stately for the “Pastoral” symphony: she certainly has the power needed to bring forth the fourth-movement thunderstorm, but she seems more comfortable dissecting the second movement, “Scene by the Brook,” with such care that the usually flowing water seems positively stagnant. Biret pulls apart this music with tremendous care and understanding, but in so doing loses the forward momentum of the symphony as a whole. It is easier to appreciate this performance than to love it – but it is hard not to consider it revelatory.

     Things are more straightforward in the “Emperor” concerto and Choral Fantasia. Biret prefers deliberate tempos here, too, but not to an inordinate extent. This “Emperor” has genuine majesty, with an especially expansive first movement that marches from start to finish with firmness and dignity. The magisterial approach continues through the second and third movements as well, with Antoni Wit and the Bilkent Symphony providing workmanlike support that keeps the focus on Biret while placing her dominance in a suitable context. In the Choral Fantasia, Biret is a touch too cool and controlled in the opening, extended piano solo, which works better if it sounds more improvisatory than it does here: her phrasing and rhythm are excellent, but what is missing is a sense of abandon (the whole piece was written as an extended encore to a famous and very lengthy 1808 concert). Still, Biret’s control and ever-present understanding of the music are apparent and attractive, and the choral and orchestral sections complement her solo work very nicely indeed – leading to a rousing conclusion.

     Biret offers fine if somewhat undistinguished readings of the three French concertos on the latest Concerto Edition CD. Saint-Saëns’ final piano concerto, known as the “Egyptian” because the composer wrote it in Luxor and it reflects his impressions of Egypt and other areas to which he traveled, has stateliness and sweep in this performance, although the second movement, marked Andante, is a very slow-paced walk indeed. Biret does some particularly nice work with the jazzy finale – a rather forward-looking movement for 1896, especially considering the composer’s reputation as a conservative musical thinker. In Ravel’s G Major concerto, which dates to 1931, Biret pays close attention to the expressivity and nuances of the score but becomes a trifle too enmeshed in detail to present an effective overarching concept. However, her top-notch technique stands her in good stead in the Presto finale. In the Concerto for the Left Hand, written in the same year, Biret’s intelligent and slightly cool approach brings out the score’s intricacies to fine effect, and the Bilkent Orchestra under Jean Fournet plays with understanding and a good sense of style – as it does in all three of these works.

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