March 04, 2021


Idil Biret: Best of Chamber Music. Idil Biret, piano; Irina Nikotina, violin; Julya Krepak, cello; Ruşen Günes, viola; Borusan Quartet; Roderic von Bennigsen, cello; London String Quartet; Yehudi Menuhin, violin. IBA. $29.99 (4 CDs).

Georg Schumann: Piano Music—Drei Stücke, Op. 1; Stimmungsbilder, Op. 2; Drei Stücke, Op. 23; Sechs Fantasien, Op. 36. Michael van Krücker, piano. CPO. $16.99.

     The difficulty facing a top virtuoso pianist in performing chamber music is not to be taken lightly. It is not that chamber music is exceptionally difficult by its very nature – but it is, by its very nature, music in which performers are more-or-less equal, and domination by any one of them tends to throw off the balance of the material and reduce the quality of the composers’ communication. It is not surprising that some first-rate pianists, used to playing as solo performers or in concertos that keep them front-and-center much of the time, are less successful in chamber music: their discomfort at being in a fully collaborative environment (or even one in which the piano is “first among equals”) comes through, although not necessarily consciously, and can make performances less worthy than would be expected on the basis of the sheer skill of the players. Happily, Idil Biret is, most of the time, able to subsume her prominence as a soloist into the needs of the conversational elements of chamber works – with the result that a new package of previously released performances by the Turkish pianist, offered as a boxed set by IBA (Idil Biret Archive), is pleasurable most of the time, both for the chance to hear Biret in this repertoire and for the overall quality of the music-making in which she takes part.

     The CDs are compiled from performances recorded during multiple decades. The oldest recordings are of Beethoven’s Violin Sonatas Nos. 5, 7 and 9 with Yehudi Menuhin. They date to radio broadcasts from 1973. Mahler’s quartet movement, with members of the London String Quartet, was recorded in 1980, as was Brahms’ Piano Quintet with the full LSQ. The rest of the material here is newer. Movements from Berlioz’ Harold in Italy and Brahms’ second viola-and-piano sonata, with Ruşen Günes, date to 2011; Schumann’s Piano Quintet, with the Borusan Quartet, comes from May 2014; Brahms’ Cello Sonata No. 2, with Roderic von Bennigsen, is from September of the same year; and there are two concert performances dating to as recently as October 2019 – Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio No. 1 and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio, both with Irina Nikotina and Julya Krepak. This is a wide variety of music and a wide-ranging set of accompaniments for Biret, providing an opportunity to hear her interacting with some musicians who tend to be a bit too deferential to her (the Borusan Quartet) and others who play and emote entirely at her level (Menuhin).

     There are, on balance, far more pleasures than shortcomings here. The three Beethoven sonatas with Menuhin, despite dated sound and a not-always-quiet audience, are examples of wonderful music-making, from the delicacy of No. 5 (“Spring”) to the lovely No. 7 to a fast-paced No. 9 (“Kreutzer”) whose finale absolutely sizzles, with Menuhin seeming to push his own tremendous talents to the limit in the pacing of this Presto. The Tchaikovsky Trio and Brahms Quintet are also absolutely top-notch readings, full of warmth and emotion, well-paced throughout and impressively balanced. The Schumann Quintet, despite sounding as if Biret is a touch too prominent, is also well-paced and is impressively emotive. The Mahler movement – the composer did not finish the quartet – sounds fine but, as music, is somewhat underwhelming. The Brahms Cello Sonata No. 2 is engaging in its collaborative dialogue but somewhat heavy-handed, beautifully played but tending to bog down from time to time. The only full-length piece that misfires is the Mendelssohn Trio, whose first movement drags and is scarcely agitated (the tempo indication is Molto allegro agitato) and whose overall presentation is not particularly convincing. It was also a flat-out mistake to include in this set only single movements from Berlioz’ Harold in Italy and Brahms’ second viola-and-piano sonata: these are not encore pieces but portions of larger canvases, carefully integrated by the composers into the totality of the works in which they appear. Pulling the movements out of context this way is simply embarrassing, no matter how nicely Biret and Ruşen Günes play. As a whole, though, this well-priced release is a very worthwhile one for fans of Biret, who will relish hearing her blending rather than dominating; and the performances that do work well are absolutely first-rate in their own right.

     The works offered in the IBA set are almost all chamber-music standards, but the piano, as a solo instrument, can be exceptionally useful in introducing audiences to music that has fallen into obscurity – or that never rose from it. The piano works of Georg Schumann (1866-1952; no relation to Robert), at least those heard on a new CPO disc, are comparatively lightweight, although not intended as salon pieces. Schumann was a fine pianist – he started performing at age 17 – and an accomplished conductor, but he spent most of his life (more than 50 years) as director of the Berliner Singakademie, and his compositions took a back seat to his academic endeavors. Still, he created a considerable amount of piano music, and it is quite interesting to hear even though the works on this disc are not especially innovative. Michael van Krücker plays the four collections of short pieces on the CD very well, allowing each individual item to paint its own sound picture while uniting the collections to the extent that their design makes that possible. Schumann’s Opp. 1 and 2 date to 1886, the former in three movements and the latter in five. The middle piece in Op. 1 is a particularly pleasing Barcarole, while Op. 2 has a highly chromatic second piece that contrasts particularly well with the one that follows, whose dotted rhythms are effectively used. Schumann then took an extended break from piano composition: Op. 23 dates to 1901 and Op. 36 to 1904. These later suites of character pieces are nevertheless not very different from the earlier ones. Op. 23, in three movements, offers contrasting portrayals of morning and evening, then concludes with another Barcarole – a form to which Schumann was clearly attracted. The six-movement Op. 36 is the most varied of these works, including everything from a graceful minuet to a waltzlike movement called “Visions after a Ball” to a dense and impressive fugue titled “At Evening in the Cathedral.” Despite some musically interesting material and some very fine pianism, though, the CD leaves the impression that Schumann did not handle the piano with great seriousness, preferring small fantasies and character pieces to anything more substantial. But there is more to his piano music, and it would be worthwhile for van Krücker, who obviously has a feel for this music, to offer Schumann’s Durch Dur und Moll (24 pieces in every key: “Through Major and Minor”) and/or his set of variations and rondos on a theme by Mozart. There is more to Schumann than this disc indicates – it would be worthwhile to use the piano to extract and display still more of his neglected music in the future, and thus perhaps to show that Schumann was a more-substantial composer for the instrument than is fully evident here.

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