Over the years, the Turkish pianist Idil Biret (b. 1941) has recorded the Beethoven sonata cycle, the Liszt transcriptions of the Beethoven symphonies, and the five Beethoven piano concertos. She is releasing this broad and ambitious series of recordings on her own record label, the "Idil Biret Archives" distributed by Naxos. Biret is a best-known for her recording of Chopin's piano music on Naxos for which she received the Grand Pris du Disque, among many other honors. Yet she remains unknown to many music lovers.
Biret has recorded the Beethoven concertos with the Bilkent Symphony Orchestra conducted by Anton Wit. The recordings date from 2008, which make them the most recent component of Biret's Beethoven edition. Wit is a highly regarded Polish conductor who has received acclaim for his recordings of Penderecki, Prokofiev, and Messaien. The Bilkent Symphony Orchestra is the first symphony orchestra founded in Turkey. It was established in 1993 by Bilkent University.
This recording includes Beethoven's first two piano concertos, the Concerto No. 1 in C major, opus 15 and the Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, opus 19. Beethoven's concertos have been recorded many times by the world's best pianists, conductors and orchestras. At both full and budget prices, there is an array of recordings from which to choose. In this crowded field, Biret's recording stands up well. Her readings of these early concertos show a great deal of lyricism, spontaniety, and joy in the music. Biret's has thought about these works and pays a great deal of attention to detail. Wit and the Bilkent Symphony are good partners. Although I have heard these concertos many times, these recordings sounded fresh. They enhanced my appreciation of Beethoven. Her performance of the second concerto in particular is on a high level.
Beethoven composed his piano concertos to establish his own reputation as a virtuoso pianist. He revised the early concertos several times before their final published versions. The piano concerto no 2 in B flat major is chronologically the first of the concertos with its earliest version dating from before Beethoven's move to Vienna in 1792. After many revisions of this work, Beethoven sent it hurriedly to his publisher in 1801 and somewhat deprecated the work. The B-flat remains the least performed of Beethoven's concertos.
Biret offers an outstanding performance of the B-flat major concerto, helping me see it in a way I hadn't seen it before. Listeners and commentators generally focus on the undeniable influence of Mozart on this concerto. Yet the work has a bumptious, rough-around-the-edges spirit that is characteristically Beethoven. There are striking rhythms and changes of tonality in the outer movements which many see as the work of a still developing composer but which are more aptly seen as evidence of Beethoven's originality even at this stage of his career.
The opening movement has a generally lyrical cast, with the piano taking an approach to the themes that is distinctively different from that of the orchestra. There are also the abrupt, angular key changes that I have already mentioned. The second movement is the centerpiece of the B-flat major concerto with an extended and broad meditative theme with much interaction between orchestra and pianist. Near the end of the movement the piano has a long, unaccompanied, recitif line which Biret brings out beautifully. The third movement is a highly syncopated rondo with many shifts of rhythmic emphasis. Biret brings out a lengthy passage in thirds near the end of the piece followed by a rousing orchestral close. concerto
Beethoven likewise performed the piano concerto no. 1 in C many times during his early years in Vienna. The work was published several months before what we know as the second piano concerto. The first concerto is a work on a larger scale than the second. The opening movement emphasizes a military, march-like theme with long orchestral introduction and an extensive role for brass and winds. The piano part is more virtuosic than in the second concerto, especially in the stirring solo theme. Beethoven wrote three cadenzas for this work, the last of which was written in Beethoven's mature style many years after the concerto. Biret plays an earlier, shorter cadenza in this recording which may be more in harmony with the early character of the work. But I would have preferred hearing Beethoven's final cadenza.
The slow movement of the first concerto is marked largo and it opens with a singing theme for the piano alone. The movement breaks into two parts, with the piano embellishing the theme with extended trills and chords as it works to a climax. The finale is a lively rondo with a famous minor key "all turca" section with large skips in intervals and heavy accentuation that led some early listeners to characterize this concerto as "bizarre". Biret takes this section of the movement somewhat lightly. I felt there was some lack of coordination between the soloist and the orchestra in a passage near the end of the piece as it worked to its close. Overall, this is a fine performance of the first concerto but not on the same level as the performance of the second.
I am enjoying rehearing Beethoven's concertos and piano sonatas in these recordings by Idil Biret. These recordings of the concertos will probably appeal most to listeners who already know and love these works.