February 25, 2021


Idil Biret Archive Edition, Volume 19: Ravel—Miroirs; La valse; Le tombeau de Couperin. Idil Biret, piano. IBA. $11.99.

Idil Biret Archive Edition, Volume 20: Ravel—Gaspard de le nuit (1965, 1975, 1984); Sérénade grotesque. Idil Biret, piano. IBA. $11.99.

     The long-running Idil Biret Archive series has reached the point of being reissues of reissues. The very first of the CD remasterings of the Turkish pianist’s performances that previously appeared on various LPs over a period of decades included Biret’s 1975 recordings of Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit and Sérénade grotesque, and the identical recordings of those works have now reappeared on the series’ 20th volume, in the context of a two-CDs-in-a-row exploration of Biret’s handling of Ravel’s solo-piano music.

     Biret, whose studies with Nadia Boulanger in Paris are at the core of her pianistic training, has considerable affinity for French piano music, and does not hesitate to put her substantial virtuosity at the service of the delicacy and somewhat effete quality of Ravel’s Impressionistic tone painting. That makes the 19th and 20th volumes released on the IBA label an immersive experience of immediacy for listeners, even though the music was recorded over a period of several decades. In Volume 19, Biret’s Le tombeau de Couperin was recorded in 1965, with Miroirs and La valse dating to 1987. In Volume 20, the unusual mixture of material presents the 1975 Ravel recordings, made in New York, along with versions of Gaspard de la nuit from Paris (1965) and Stuttgart (1984). Taken together, the two CDs not only show Biret’s adept handling of Ravel’s music but also provide insight into approaches that she changed – and did not change – in performing the music over a two-decade time span.

     What is noticeably the same in these recordings is the way Biret’s virtuosity takes a back seat to her skill at tone-painting. The works certainly have hyper-virtuosic elements: Ondine and Scarbo from Gaspard de la nuit are long-established challenges for pianists and frequently used to highlight sheer technical skill. But it is in the more-delicate works on these discs that Biret’s interpretative sensitivity really shines. In Volume 19, in Miroirs, that means accentuating the note cascades of Noctuelles as well as playing the far-more-familiar Alborada del gracioso with sensitivity and rhythmic awareness. It means accepting La Valse as a look back and summation of the Viennese waltz, which is what Ravel intended it to be – not a condemnation of old, vanished empires or a paean to decadence and its welcome disappearance, as it seems to be in some interpretations. True, Biret handles the music as seen “through a glass, darkly,” and plays it as a kind of in memoriam to a vanished age; but she does so without focusing overmuch on the notion that, having been completed in 1920, La valse must of necessity be an ironic postwar commentary on what was lost in World War I. Instead, Biret offers nostalgia uncomplicated by any sort of sarcasm. And in Le tombeau de Couperin, which was actually written during the Great War and intended as a memorial to fallen friends, Biret manages to extract emotional heft from Ravel’s use of 18th-century forms – while not overstating the “wartime tribute” aspects of the music to the diminution of its role as a tribute to Couperin himself, and the age in which he flourished.

     As for Volume 20, the inclusion of three decades’ versions of Gaspard de la nuit allows for some fascinating listening. The third piece in the suite, Scarbo, sounds largely the same in all the recordings and runs about the same amount of time, from 9:11 to 9:25. The nightmarish characteristics of the devilish dwarf are made clear throughout but are never overstated: there is a subtlety to Ravel’s portrayal that Biret captures very well. The first piece, Ondine, has somewhat more variability, from 6:34 to 7:36, but again Biret’s approach is largely the same: she looks for regularity of accentuation within the work, allowing emphases of specific elements to come to the fore without interfering with what in some respects is an extended ostinato. But the central piece, Le gibet, varies quite a bit among the three versions, from 6:58 (Paris) to 7:07 (Stuttgart) to a full 9:20 (New York). Listeners can almost sense Biret thinking and rethinking this piece over time, moving it smartly (if atmospherically) along in the earliest recording, slowing it substantially to extract the maximum impact of the scene portrayed for her second rendition, then returning in her third approach to something like her first one, but with subtly different emphasis that makes the scene expansive without slowing the actual pacing of the music to any significant extent.

     After the three versions of Gaspard de la nuit, the inclusion as an encore of Sérénade grotesque, Ravel’s first piano composition (written when he was 18), is interesting mainly because the work in some ways foreshadows Ravel’s handling of similar grotesquerie in Gaspard de la nuit. On its own, Sérénade grotesque is an effective enough encore (Biret plays it in three-and-a-half minutes), although it is somewhat pale when heard after the 15-years-later suite – especially when one hears Biret play that suite three separate times. Still, this small piece works well with all the miniatures from which Ravel built up not only Gaspard de la nuit but also Miroirs and Le tombeau de Couperin – and Biret’s skill in assembling those small elements into larger continuities, while allowing each individual movement to express its individuality, is what makes the latest Idil Biret Archive releases so satisfying to experience.

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