This disc is released as volume 3 of the complete piano sonatas (32), a keyboard cycle still in progress. While this disc is tagged as volume 3 of the sonatas, it is also titled volume 5 of the complete Beethoven Edition from this artist. All in all, part of an immense summary effort to release or re-release nearly everything that Turkish piano star Idil Biret has recorded - for nearly everybody, over the years of her busy, continent-hopping career. But this immense effort - remember the old Vox complete boxes? - is anything but an empty vanity project.
It is probably safe to say that Idil Biret is Turkey's greatest living pianist. (Fazil Say is a much younger player whose name is also internationally recognized.) She demonstrated interest and talent early on, and eventually ended up in Paris studying at The Conservatory where she was tutored and mentored by no less a figure than the famous Nadia Boulanger. By age fifteen years, Idil Biret had finished her Paris Conservatory courses, earning three first prizes. She then went on to coach, study, and be mentored by French legend Alfred Cortot, and German legend Wilhelm Kempff.
I first came across her during my graduate studies in Boston. It was a release - very odd at the time - of the Franz Liszt solo piano arrangement of Berlioz Symphonie fantastique. Hardly anybody else was playing those old Liszt piano versions of the core Romantic or Classical repertoire in those days; I think maybe Glenn Gould had also been iconoclastic enough to record the Liszt solo piano versions of the Beethoven symphonies. Then a few very striking vinyls popped up in the LP bins, sonatas of Pierre Boulez, Etudes by Ligeti, that sort of recorded repertoire that hardly any major record lable of the era would touch. As George Szell (himself a subtle champion of much modern music) is said to have said to anybody who would listen: I do not believe in the mass audience grave of the modern music concert.
Well. That was years and years and years ago.
Meanwhile, Idil Biret has been a very active performer. She has not only maintained a successful public concert career; she has been in the recording studio almost as much - maybe more? - than many another big name pianist, living or dead. Think I'm kidding? Idil Biret has by now recorded the complete piano works of (1) Chopin - winning the Grand Priz du Disque of the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest, on Naxos; (2) Rachmaninoff, again on Naxos; (3) Brahms, again on Naxos. Throw in some additional discs of piano music by Schumann, Debussy, and even music by her teacher-mentor Wilhelm Kempff - and well, her recorded output has simply been prodigious by any reasonable measure.
Enter her detractors. Anybody who records that much simply cannot be expected to play everything equally well, and perhaps not even reasonably expected to play everything at an effectively high quality musical level. Think again?
I had my doubts or qualms, too. Now fast forward. I do find myself trying her new Beethoven releases.
Well. Whew. I still think that there is something difficult in Biret's real world piano tone that is only caught on her recordings to a lesser, limited degree. But now I think I hear enough that does and will come through on these discs, that I must reverse myself, at least when it comes to her new Beethoven series.
What Biret is doing in her readings of Beethoven solo piano sonatas (and in the piano concertos) is not easily put into words. She is a strong, clean, clear Beethoven player. Wilhelm Kempff thought highly of her, as did Nadia Boulanger, as did Alfred Cortot. So, think Wilhelm Kempff, Bruce Hungerford, and (for a modern reference) Francois Frederic Guy. She has lived these sonatas and concertos for many years now; her mature experience and involvement show deeply in her readings. Everything is simply immense - big size in musical intelligence, big size in musical variety, big size in those ineffable combinations and recombinations of tempo, phrasing, harmonic narrative, and thus - big size so far as Beethoven interpretation goes.
Idil Biret's Beethoven readings are more than a pale rehash of Wilhelm Kempff, however much her clear, clean, muscular playing recalls all those Beethoven pianists who do not try to cover with pedaling what they otherwise might not quite accomplish with fingers, hand, arm, forearm, and shoulders (even putting some back in to it). What else? Well I hear in passing, two notable musical dimensions. For one thing, Idil Biret has lived Beethoven and loved Beethoven for her whole musical lifetime. Her experience, her love shows. Her musical love is hard to quantify; but I for one would much prefer to hear a pianist who has the chops, who this deeply loves the composer.
For a second thing, Idil Biret has matured far beyond the burning prodigy fireworks flash of her earliest virtuosity. She now displays that kind of virtuoso command of the keyboard which reveals the music through tempo, inter-relations of tempo, harmony narrated, harmony sculpted, and phrasing, phrasing, phrasing. There is more than an inadvertent touch of Arturo Michelangelo Benedetti's mercurial-olympian authority in Biret's playing.
The main thing about her Beethoven so far, is that Biret brings it all together, into a grand whole music that is genuinely the composer. She is as unselfconscious a genius of a player as we might find these days, surely. You never hear her connecting all the dots. (There are a lot of potential dots in Beethoven, no doubt.) She does not have to call undue attention to virtuoso gear shifts, instead depending on the harmony as written to be her sure foundations. You simply hear her giving herself, fully and freely to the music printed on the pages.
Of these three piano sonatas, the Waldstein is no doubt the most famous. Yet this pianist brings tempo and harmony together in the known and the lesser known sonatas. If you have had some passing tendency to unfairly neglect the lesser known sonatas, her playing will quickly set you straight again. Here, sonata 7 is just as much worth hearing as the Waldstein. Ditto, sonata 25.
Idil Biret often captures a surprising sense of improvisatory freedom, despite all the clean musical strictness of her allegiance to the notes or to the composer's markings. She has the most amazing rubato gifts - rubato gifts that we often do not readily associate with real world, high quality Beethoven performance. She can breathe with all the music in its larger paragraphs, not mauling or distorting melodic lines or thematic developmental passages out of time or out of mainstream Beethovenian shapes. Her playing is anything but relentlessly driven forward in its uncommonly alert, forward musical motion. Her fast sonata movements are not just speed contests; the figurations, changes, even the repeats - Speak. Her slow movements are among the more satisfying Beethoven on disc so far. Often, her Beethoven final movements sound especially fresh, as if they were being improvised nearly on the spot in one of those fierce public contests, so popular in the composer's own era. By common consensus at the time, Beethoven won those contests, and Beethoven wins again in these readings.
I will now have to revisit her Brahms, her Rachmaninoff, and yes, at least some of her Chopin. These budget priced discs are a generous gift to the beginning fan, and to older fans alike. Detractors will still be nay-sayers. Okay. No performance is final and perfect, for as Schnabel said: Beethoven is better music than can be played in any particular performance. In her very own way, Idil Biret is at least as amazing as any other woman pianist now playing before us; and we are fortunate, indeed, that she is still recording, deepening, discovering, in love with composers and with music.
Five stars, these sonatas. I guess I chime in with dear old Nadia Boulanger, after all: May the angels protect you on your musical journey, Idil.