September 17, 2020


Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Nos. 7, 8 (“Pathétique”), 14 (“Moonlight”), 21 (“Waldstein”), 23 (“Appassionata”), and 25; Piano Concerto No. 5; Fantasia for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra; Symphony No. 5 & Symphony No. 9—Finale (Liszt Piano Transcriptions). Idil Biret, piano; Turkish State Polyphonic Chorus and Bilkent Symphony Orchestra conducted by Antoni Wit. IBA. $16.99 (4 CDs).

     The 250th-anniversary celebration of Beethoven’s birth has also turned into a celebration of some of the performers who have long been associated with his music. Turkish pianist Idil Biret (born 1941) is a distinguished member of that group, and to this day is the only pianist who has both recorded and performed in concert all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, his five numbered piano concertos, and the nine symphonic transcriptions prepared by Franz Liszt. The IBA (Idil Biret Archive) label presented all this material to the public in an exceptional 19-CD series released between 2009 and 2011 – but the actual recordings making up the series extended over a far longer period of more than two decades. Now, in recognition both of Beethoven and of Biret, IBA has assembled a four-CD “Idil Biret: Best of Beethoven” anthology, complete with a booklet that rather awkwardly merges Biret’s head with a famous bust of Beethoven, as if to emphasize, visually, the close connection between the two.

     Marketing and packaging aside, what matters here is the music – and although the performances are uniformly impressive and played with a high level of skill, they are also, in many cases, throwbacks to an earlier style of playing Beethoven. It is the style of performers such as Wilhelm Kempff, Alfred Cortot and Wilhelm Backhaus, with all of whom Biret was acquainted – and all of whom taught her or admired her pianism. Biret was also highly praised by her famous teacher, Nadia Boulanger. But all this is to say that Biret’s is a style that now often seems so old-fashioned as to be quaint: Kempff died in 1991, Cortot in 1962, Backhaus in 1969, Boulanger in 1979. The big sound favored by pianists of earlier generations, taking full advantage of the resources of a modern piano whose range and timbre differ significantly from anything Beethoven knew, was their trademark, and it remains Biret’s. But recent scholarship and understanding of historical performance practice – plus the ability to play Beethoven on fortepianos of his own time, or well-made reproductions of them – have rendered the old-fashioned “grand” style of performance archaic, if not obsolete.

     Biret, however, remains true to the old style, and offers it in ways that listeners who enjoy the approach will find simply wonderful. Biret has, after all, been playing this way – and recording these works – for a very long time. Sonatas Nos. 7, 21 and 25 were recorded in 1994; Nos. 8 and 23 in 2001; and No. 14 in 2008. Piano Concerto No. 5 and the Fantasia for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra were recorded in 2008. The Liszt transcription of Symphony No. 5 was recorded in 1985; that of No. 9 dates to 1986. So this release offers material recorded over a 23-year time period – and all of it, remarkably, has a consistency of sound (piano sound, although not always recorded sound) and technique that shows just how carefully Biret has thought about how she wants to approach this music and present it to audiences.

     On the whole, the sonatas are the least successful offerings here. That is partly because it no longer sounds quite right to hear them played so sonorously and with so much pedal, on modern pianos with such enormous and strong soundboards and such a high degree of resonance. But it is also partly because of decisions Biret makes that, although intelligent, are out of keeping with recent Beethoven scholarship and musicianship. These are especially apparent in her tempo choices: Biret opts, again and again, for the grand, even grandiose, making this material so stately that it sounds like a series of pronouncements rather than anything incorporating intimacy or inter-human communication. The very slow first movement of the “Pathétique” never gets close to its Molto allegro e con brio tempo marking, for example, and the second movement of the “Appassionata” is so far from Andante con moto that it actually drags. These are clearly considered decisions by Biret: it is not that she cannot play at breakneck speed, witness her handling of the Prestissimo conclusion of the “Waldstein,” but that she chooses to present the sonatas in a mannerly and indeed rather mannered way. They come across here more as museum pieces than as emotion-driven, living music – although, interestingly, the very short and not especially well-known No. 25 (which lasts less than10 minutes) has a pleasant delicacy to be found nowhere else in these interpretations.

     The works with orchestra hold up better. The “Emperor” concerto is a first-rate performance for those who want to hear this in the grand style, as an early Romantic work rather than a piece from Beethoven’s middle compositional period, still retaining some elements of the Classical era. Biret’s handling of the opening cadenza-like material is thoroughly Lisztian – so much so that when Antoni Wit brings along the Bilkent Symphony Orchestra, it almost sounds as if the ensemble is playing a piece from a different time period. The balance between piano and orchestra here leans firmly toward the keyboard, with Biret’s presence dominating throughout, from the decidedly Romantic feeling of the second movement to the proclamatory manner in which she handles the thematic material of the finale. Perhaps all this is somewhat wrong-headed in terms of how Beethoven intended the music to sound, but it is wrong-headed in a way that is thoroughly convincing on its own terms. The Choral Fantasy comes off rather less well: Biret gives the same “proclamation” feeling to the extended piano solo that opens the work, but this material is supposed to sound improvisational – indeed, it was improvised by Beethoven at the first performance – and the rather staid piano sound, abetted by Biret’s pedaling, gives a feeling of grandiloquence to music that is really, by intent, on the slight side. The latter part of the work comes across well, with chorus and soloists handling the vocal parts with care and sensitivity. But the piece does not hang together as well as it can, and its overall effect is an underwhelming one.

     The Liszt transcriptions require somewhat different ears from those needed for the other works here. Liszt undoubtedly did pull Beethoven into the Romantic era and undoubtedly did want the transcriptions he made to have the grand sound that Liszt sought in so much of his own music. Furthermore, it was during Liszt’s lifetime that the piano evolved into the huge, heavy, reverberant instrument it is today, although it was only near the end of Liszt’s life (he died in 1886) that instruments approximating modern ones were fully deployed – by which time, ironically, Liszt himself had largely abandoned his over-the-top earlier pianism and compositional approach in favor of something far more delicate, intimate and intricate. The Beethoven transcriptions, however, were published as a set in 1865, and Liszt completed several of them as early as the 1830s. And the use of the resources of a modern piano for these enormously difficult works is less questionable than it is for Beethoven’s own original music. Nevertheless, some listeners may well find Biret’s handling of the excerpts heard here rather questionable. The famous four-note motto that starts No. 5 is pounded out with far greater portentousness than it usually receives either in orchestral or pianistic guise. The tempo contrasts within the first movement are pronounced, to such a point that the section played in the orchestral version by a solo oboe is practically static. The second movement is taken at a very slow, even ponderous pace, while the third retains none of the mystery that Beethoven put into it – a difficult element to include, admittedly, but one that Biret had the power to introduce had she wanted to. And the finale never takes flight: it is triumphal in its original orchestral guise and in other readings of Liszt’s version, but here it is rather plodding and does not sound at all like a capstone for the work.

     As for the finale of the Ninth: the first issue with it involves taking it thoroughly out of context by offering it on this four-CD set by itself. This is not, after all, a standalone movement, but the culmination of an hour-long work whose transcription presented enormous difficulties even to Liszt – and Biret has been quoted as saying a performer really needs three hands to make it work. She does make it work, with only two tremendously skilled hands, but the music never really takes flight, much less become transcendent. The opening four minutes, reintroducing the themes of earlier (here unheard) movements, have a tentative feeling to them, and when the main theme of this movement finally emerges, Biret plays it slowly and with tremendous delicacy – an approach that would have been more justifiable if the first part of the movement had been presented with greater drama and intensity. As is, the main theme sounds mostly like a pleasant nocturne, not a proclamation of unity or a hope for humanity. On the other hand, Biret builds effectively from this modest beginning: as the music grows in complexity, she shapes it well, allowing it to develop organically until the point at which, in the original symphony, the voices enter. From here on, the music becomes nearly unplayable – the notion of needing three hands is not far-fetched! – and Biret shows her mettle by continuing to build the movement organically, bringing out some of Liszt’s clever touches, such as the way he presents the “Turkish march” section in the two hands. The bounciness at that point is welcome, since Biret is otherwise quite serious, even somber, to perhaps a greater degree than the music necessitates. In the original orchestral version, the second half of the movement comes across as a striving for ever-greater emotional heights, straining the performers (especially the vocal soloists) to the breaking point in doing so. Not so for Biret: she actually plays the second half of this movement with greater assurance than the first. On the other hand, she favors very slow tempos most of the time – it is hard to imagine singers being very effectively expressive at these speeds – and the result is that parts of the movement’s second half become somnolent, even though others are rousing, even sparkling. Biret’s playing is never less than carefully considered, and her technical command of the music is exceptional – not only here but also in every work throughout this four-CD collection. Indeed, this recording is in many ways a tribute to Biret rather than, or at least in addition to, a tribute to Beethoven. The performances are decidedly “old school” and will not, in and of themselves, likely be first choices for listeners who have become more accustomed to hearing Beethoven in historically aware readings and with historically accurate performance practices – they will certainly not suffice for those who prefer to hear his music on the instruments for which he wrote it. But there remains a place in the sound world of Beethoven for sheer heft, for sending forth his music with abundant flourishes and with all the tonal grandeur of which more-modern instruments are capable. This Biret recording is a chance to hear someone who has mastered that now-old-fashioned approach to Beethoven and who knows how to make it heartfelt and, much of the time, convincing on its own terms, even if those terms are not quite Beethoven’s.

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