December 10, 2020


Idil Biret Concerto Edition, Volume 9: Franck—Les Djinns; Variations symphoniques; Prélude, Choral et Fugue; Prélude, Aria et Final. Idil Biret, piano; Bilkent Symphony Orchestra conducted by Alain Pâris. IBA. $11.99.

Idil Biret Concerto Edition, Volume 10: Mozart—Piano Concertos Nos. 21 and 22. Idil Biret, piano; Bursa Regional State Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ender Sakpinar. IBA. $11.99.

     The fact that Turkish pianist Idil Biret remains one of the great keyboard artists of our time needs no further confirmation, but it keeps getting more through the ongoing IBA (Idil Biret Archive) releases of her performances, some recent and some older, of all sorts of music. Biret is nothing if not adept, as the two latest discs in the “Concerto Edition” show: she brings the same sensitivity and attention to detail to the music of César Franck that she brings to Mozart, and she approaches  both composers’ music with the same mixture of understanding and admiration that she brings to all her readings throughout the longstanding and mostly excellent IBA series.

     Placing the Franck disc in the “Concerto Edition” is a bit of a stretch, since it does not contain a concerto and, in fact, is mostly devoted to two extended solo-piano works. But certainly there is a great deal that is concerto-like in the tone poem Les Djinns and in the Variations symphoniques, and Biret handles both the pieces with a firm grasp of Romantic ideals, a great deal of lyricism and warm flow, and a firm command of Franck’s pianistic idiom. It is a characteristic of Biret’s playing that her virtuosity is so much a given that it almost seems to disappear: there is never a sense in either of these piano-and-orchestra pieces that she is showing off or straining for any sort of effect. She seems to let the music flow through her – an approach opposite that of performers who sound as if they are taking command of the material. A good example comes in the coda of Les Djinns, where gentleness rather than might overcomes the diabolical. Biret gets the fragility of this conclusion just right, chasing away the specters without any sense of strong effort. In the Variations symphoniques, the mood is also on the relaxed side, at times a bit too much so – although the variation that showcases the piano against the lower strings benefits a great deal from this approach, and certainly Biret offers plenty of fire when it is called for. The majority of the disc, though, is devoted to Prélude, Choral et Fugue and Prélude, Aria et Final, two extended solo-piano pieces written late in Franck’s life, the first strongly inspired by Bach and the second cut from the same general mold but having more of a secular bent. Biret has clearly studied the underlying structure of both these works in considerable detail, and she does a fine job of bringing out the foundational musical ideas from which Franck builds both pieces, showing how they permeate and provide unity to all three movements in each case. The closing Fugue is handled particularly adeptly, as Biret shows how material from the earlier movements is brought forth in the concluding one even as Franck adheres to the requirements of the Baroque form. Both these three-movement piano works are essentially cyclical, and Biret excels in presenting material and then recalling it clearly, but without overemphasizing its reappearance. Neither of these pieces has the drama of the piano-and-orchestra ones on the disc, but both offer highly satisfying pianism in the service of a style to which Biret is clearly very attuned.

     The latest Mozart CD in the “Concerto Edition” – previous entries focused on Concertos Nos. 13 and 17 and on Nos. 15, 24, 25 and 27 – is a bit more of a mixed bag. Biret works closely with the conductors who accompany her: Alain Pâris does so quite effectively on the Franck disc, but Ender Sakpinar is somewhat less effective with Mozart. Concerto No. 21, with its wonderful wind parts and effortless flow, here seeks grandeur that does not really fit it very well. The first movement, in particular, is so slow and stately that it sounds as if it is trying to be grand to the point of grandiosity. Biret gamely goes along with the approach – or perhaps it is her approach, with which Sakpinar goes along. Either way, the playing itself is very fine, and the slow pace gives Biret plenty of chances to highlight some of Mozart’s gorgeous turns of phrase. But any sense of joie de vivre is entirely missing here: there is such seriousness of purpose that it almost smothers the loveliness. The second movement, one of Mozart’s most beautifully flowing, is better; but it is still on the slow side, its warm delicacy lacking in the kind of lightness that can make this movement so winning – and since Biret uses a modern concert grand piano and takes full advantage of its sonic capabilities, there is an even greater extent to which the movement’s scale seems strained. The finale is the best movement here: still rather slow-paced, but with more delicacy than the two earlier movements possess, and a pleasant level of attention to detail that helps make up for the fact that here too, the pacing is somewhat plodding – certainly slower than the Allegro vivace assai tempo marking. As well-played as it is, this Concerto No. 21 is never fully convincing. No. 22 fares better, in part because it is a larger-scale work than No. 21 and therefore more adaptable to the (again) rather slow tempos favored by Biret and Sakpinar. One issue with both concertos, which were recorded live, is that the sound is quite echo-heavy (the recordings were made at a hall in Bursa, Turkey). This results in sustained piano and orchestra chords that seem to go on and on in a way suitable more to Romantic music than to works of Mozart’s time. The sonic environment lends weight to the music, to be sure, but it does so in a way that is not entirely in keeping with Mozart’s time and worldview. Add the piano’s resonance and the use of a full modern-instrument orchestra, and the result is music that, at its best, glows with warmth, but at times just seems too heavy. The first movement of No. 22 works well because of Biret’s usual attentiveness to detail and ornamentation, and the quality of her cadenza (she wrote all four cadenzas heard in the two concertos). There is a bit too much intensity in the development section of the movement, but otherwise, given the comparatively leisurely pace, there is plenty to enjoy here. The second movement has a lovely flowing pace, although a bit slower than the Andante it is marked. Here Biret’s sensitivity to the details of Mozart’s phrasing and ornamentation, and Sakpinar’s care in bringing forth the woodwinds, combine to produce some especially lovely effects. The finale opens with a lovely lilt in the piano, although the heaviness when the orchestra soon enters is less winning. Still, Biret’s delicacy here – in music that is genuinely pretty – is notable. The pacing is as leisurely here as it is throughout this disc, but for the most part, it works well in this case, with Biret offering a lighter touch than in several other movements on this CD. As in the second movement, the combinations and contrasts of piano and woodwinds in the third are charming, and Biret’s typically effortless way with Mozart’s runs and rhythms serves her and the music well. The slower, chorale-like setting midway through the movement, one of this concerto’s greatest pleasures, is not differentiated quite enough in tempo here – because the main Allegro portions of the movement are on the slow side – but the actual playing is top-notch, and after the Allegro resumes, the movement proceeds to its conclusion with considerable beauty. It is worth remembering that Biret (born 1941) comes from an earlier generation of pianists, one unacquainted with historical performance practices and instruments, reduced orchestra size, and so forth. Her interpretations are more capital-R Romantic than are many offered by younger pianists today, and in some ways are a tribute to the teachers and pianists (notably Nadia Boulanger and Wilhelm Kempff) from whom she learned. They are lovely, but they are also throwbacks. The “Concerto Edition” releases show this quite clearly – to better effect in overtly Romantic music, such as Franck’s, than in music of greater poise and delicacy, such as Mozart’s.

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