The Turkish pianist Idil Biret has recorded Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas on her own record label, the "Idil Biret Archives," distributed by Naxos. I have a place in my heart for budget-priced recordings of the Beethoven sonatas because they gave me my first recorded experience with this music many decades ago. Biret offers well-thought out and generally subdued readings of these works. There is great competition in recordings of the Beethoven sonatas at every price range, but her recordings are good choices in a crowded field. Biret's releases of the sonata cycle began in 2009 and are continuing with the release of a new CD every other month. Each CD generally includes three sonatas. This format allows the listener to hear a small group of works at one sitting rather that try to absorb Beethoven's entire output at once in a box set. The format also allows the listener to focus on some of the less familiar sonatas, a practice sometimes discouraged by recordings which concentrate on the few most familiar works. I have been enjoying revisiting the sonatas in Biret's recordings and in presenting my thoughts on each work here on Amazon in the hope to encourage new listeners to hear this music.
This recent CD includes three varied works, sonata no. 6 in F major, op. 10 no. 2, sonata no. 12 in A flat major, op. 26, and the "Pastoral" sonata, no. 15 in D major op. 28 that show Beethoven coming into his own voice as a composer for the piano. Biret recorded the former two sonatas in 2003 while the recording of the Pastoral dates from 2005. There is no single performance style that fits all of Beethoven. Biret wisely adjusts her playing to meet the individual character of each work.
Composed as part of a set of three, the three movement sonata in F major shows the great influence of Haydn in its liveliness, humor and rhythm. Beethoven learned from his teacher Haydn to "do much with little". Thus, this sonata begins with a brusque pair of chords which form the basis of the opening allegro movement. The movement includes a great deal of syncopated rhythm and, unusually, both the first and second parts are repeated. The second movement, marked "allegretto" is of contrasting character with a slow, meditative theme and a chorale-like middle section. The finale of this work is marked presto, but it is rarely taken at this tempo. Although the opening two movements are frequently given to young pianists, the finale of this sonata is difficult to play successfully. It is in the manner of a perpetuum mobile finale with lengthy repeated staccato passages alternating with long and difficult passages of runs and skips for the performer. The movement will bear a virtuoso performance.
Biret is at her most convincing in the sonata in A flat major opus 26, a work of improvisatory, romantic character. It is a work I heard performed in concert early in life and one that I have played myself. The four movements of this work are in widely disparate forms and moods, and none of the movements is in sonata form. Yet, the work manages a sense of coherence. The opening movement consists of an introspective theme and five variations. Listen to the lovely coda at the end of the movement in which Beethoven introduces a singing theme not heard earlier in the theme or the variations. The use of new material at the end of a movement of variations marked a considerable departure from earlier composers. The second movement of this work is, unusually, a scherzo, which is another reminder of Haydn. The third movement is marked "funeral march for the death of a hero". It is a noble, solemn movement which presages the funeral march of the "Eroica" symphony which would follow this sonata by two years. Biret gives a subdued reading to this movement. The finale is a light and flowing rondo which sometimes is played too quickly. Biret avoids that temptation in her reading.
Beethoven did not give his D major sonata op. 28 the nickname "Pastoral", but the term aptly characterizes the serene, elevated character of the work if not pressed too far. This sonata is highly integrated among its four movements with related themes and common features, including many passages of slow repeated notes, "drones", in the lower register of the piano. For the most part, the opening allegro is lyrical and serene with its themes floating over a repeated low D in the left hand. The second movement remained one of Beethoven's favorites throughout his life. It is an andante which consists of a hauntingly sad theme played over a repeated staccato phrase, which Biret emphasizes, in the left hand. As the movement develops, the melody expands and becomes embroidered extensively with filigree. The third movement is a light scherzo based upon a three-note and repeated phrase which works to a large climax at the end. In the finale, Beethoven returns to a variant of the theme of the opening movement but with a more wandering and relaxed character. Biret offers a careful reading of this lovely sonata, taking it at a relaxed pace.
The sound quality of the CD is good. Listeners new to these sonatas and listeners who have lived with the sonatas for many years will enjoy this recording by Idil Biret.
Total time: 68:27