This disc is released as volume two of the complete piano concertos, and volume seven of the ongoing complete Beethoven series, 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 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. For one thing, I have not yet found her Chopin cycle all that convincing. Even so, I noted her devotion to Brahms, to Rachmaninoff. I began to think that I simply had a musical scotoma - a blind spot that kept me from hearing what Biret was doing in all of that music. After all, something very like such a blind spot happened to me early on, when I could hardly stand the recorded sound of Elizabeth Schwarzkopf's soprano. Then I heard Schwarzkopf live in a recital which will never fade from personal memory; and after that, I could go back to the recordings and get past their limitations. Biret probably just had one of those difficult, complicated basic sounds that was hard to completely do justice to, in recordings. Or so I guessed.
Now fast forward, and I 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 I must reverse myself, at least, especially, 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 clean and clear Beethoven player - think Wilhelm Kempff, Bruce Hungerford, and (for a modern reference) Francois Frederic Guy. She has lived these sonatas and concertos for many years now, and it shows 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 - of Beethoven interpretation.
In these piano concertos, her partners are the new musical kid on the controversial Turkish avenues of the EEU block, Bilkent Symphony Orchestra - an orchestra based at an upscale, very modern private university founded in Turkey as recently as 1984. Bilkent is an acronym of bilim kenti, which means city of science and knowledge in Turkish. The leader in these concertos is that venerable Polish conductor, Antoni Wit.
The Bilkent band sounds young. Nobody is playing badly or out of tune. No, not at all. But do not expect to hear the prodigious, rich tonal velvets and precious metals of, say, Vienna, Philadelphia, London, Berlin, and lots of other places. Do expect to hear youthful, good quality playing - considered from both the stand points of instrumental technique, and of musicality.
Antoni Wit shepherds all this new musical treasure in Turkey, very ably, indeed. It seems Wit has never before been tapped to conduct the Beethoven piano concertos. Surely a musical oversight, given his own experience and musical gifts? He was probably a very wise choice, insofar as he has been the conductor in Biret's Brahms and Rachmaninoff concertos. Conductor and soloist ought to know one another pretty well by now; and on the recorded evidence, their musical partnership has stood the raw test of a whole lot of studio time.
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. For a second thing, Idil Biret has matured far beyond the burning star whizz 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. She brings tempo and harmony together. She 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 driver forward in its undeniably alert, forward musical motion. Often, Beethoven's final movements sound especially fresh, as if they were being improvised nearly on the spot in one of those fierce public concert hall contests, popular in the composer's own era. 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. I guess I vote with dear old Nadia Boulanger, after all: May the angels protect you on your musical journey, Idil.