V 1: Idil Biret Beethoven Edit
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"Biret grasps the size of Beethoven' style. The polyphony is laid out in a relaxed way with little indulgence in point making. She keeps the big line and yet is thankfully sparing in her use of fortissimos. The piano tone is sumptuous. Biret' gentle and
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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 keyboard legend Alfred Cortot, and by German keyboard legend Wilhelm Kempff.
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 Prix 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.
Perhaps it is safe to guess that these four piano sonatas are better known to students and musicians, than to the general piano concert-going public? 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, the two early Opus 3 sonatas (1, 2) are worth hearing, just as much as the middle period Opus 49 (1, 2) sonatas.
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.
Idil Biret is a Turkish pianist who studied with Alfred Corot and Wilhelm Kempff. She is best-known for her complete recording of Chopin's piano music on Naxos in the 1990s. Her new Beethoven sonata cycle is part of an even larger recording of Beethoven piano music, which includes the five piano concertos and the nine symphonies in Liszt's transcriptions. Judging from this initial CD, Biret approaches the sonatas in a restrained, subdued manner without the banging or exageration of some pianists or of some still prevalent stereotypes of Beethoven. This set, especially for new listeners, will be an excellent way to approach to sonatas. It will allow the listener to concentrate more on Beethoven than on the idiosyncracies of the performer. In my own listening to this series, I will be using the scores for the sonatas, usually in the Tovey-Craxton edition. I will also be using Charles Rosen's invaluable "A Short Introduction to Beethoven's Piano Sonatas" together with Lewis Lockwood's biography of Beethoven as guides. The literature on Beethoven's piano sonatas is immense. The new listener may well simply concentrate on and enjoy the music.
This first CD in the series includes the first four piano sonatas Beethoven composed. Of these, the first two bear the misleadingly high opus number 49. The works were published in 1805, allegedly without Beethoven's permission; but they were composed at least ten years earlier. These works are sometimes referred to as "easy" teaching sonatas, and they are frequently given to young students.
Both of the opus 49 sonatas are short and in two movements. Interestingly enough, the first of Beethoven's sonatas, opus 49 no 1 is in a minor key, G minor, with a substantial degree of tragedy. Charles Rosen describes it as a "deeply affecting and distinguished work". The first movement is an andante with a dark opening theme and a quicker-paced secondary theme. In the finale, Beethoven moves to G major in a lively and surprisingly expansive rondo which is not entirely easy to play.
The second sonata, opus 49, no. 2 in G major, is a much lighter and simpler work. The opening allegro ma non troppo begins with a large chord and lively theme followed by an endearing, swinging march like second theme. The second movement is a minuet. Beethoven used the theme of this movement a few years after composing this sonata in what during his lifetime became one of his most famous works. The theme of the closing movement of this sonata appears as the third movement of Beethoven's beautiful septet, opus 20.
In 1796, Beethoven published three piano sonatas dedicated to Haydn as his opus 2. Although they are early, each of these sonatas is large and has its own musical personality. The sonatas are in four movements rather than in the more customary three. Of the three opus 2 sonatas, Idel Biret plays the first two on this CD. Broadly speaking, in the first sonata, Beethoven writes in the style of Mozart while in the second sonata he writes in the style of Haydn.
As with opus 49, opus 2 is unusual at the outset in opening with a minor-key work, the sonata in F minor. Lewis Lockwood describes this sonata aptly as an "intense tightly-woven masterpiece." Each of the four movements of this work are in the key of F, and all but the slow movement are in F minor, giving the work an angry, tragic character. The opening music uses a rising phrase called the "Mannheim Rocket" which Mozart had used in the finale of his symphony no. 40 in G minor and which Beethoven had himself used in a work of his youth. The second movement of the F minor sonata is a singing, highly ornamented adagio in two parts. The minuet is a spare and rhythmical movement in F minor with a major-key lyrically contrasting trio. The finale of this sonata, marked prestissimo, is a romantically angry movement with large blocked chords which alternate with long minor-key runs down the keyboard. There is a contrastingly gentle middle setion. Rosen describes this outburst of the young Beethoven as a "work of youthful violence".
The sonata in A major opus 2 no 2 is a formally more complex work that shows Haydn's influence on his young student. The opening allegro vivace is a rough-hewn movement with instances of humor in music of wide skips of intervals and frequent changes of mood. This movement features many virtuoso passages in which the young Beethoven displayed his formidable pianistic ability. The second movement, Largo appassionato, is likewise an extended work with a particularly long coda. Beethoven contrasts a slow-moving hymn-like theme in this movement with a stacatto accompaniment in the bass, almost like a pizzicato figure for the cello. The third movement of the A major sonata is marked scherzo rather than minuet. This is still a gracious movement with light filigree. But the movement is longer and on a larger scale than a customary minuet. The finale is a lengthy, gracious and relaxed rondo with a contrastingly jagged middle section. In addition to its leisurely flow, this finale features flashy arpeggio passages
and runs which extend the entire length of the keyboard of Beethoven's day.
This CD makes an excellent introduction to the earliest Beethoven piano sonatas and to the sonata cycle. I am looking forward to hearing the remaining volumes of the series and to discussing them here on Amazon.