V 4: 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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Beethoven's three opus 2 sonatas date from 1796 and were dedicated to Haydn. Although early works, these three sonatas show startling originality and variety. Each of these three sonatas is in four rather than three movements, giving them an expansive character at the outset. The first of the set, in F minor, is Mozartean in character while the second sonata in A major shows Beethoven's indebtedness to Haydn. Both these works appear on the first CD of Biret's cycle.
The sonata opus 2 no. 3 in C major appears on this CD and differs markedly from its companions. The C major sonata is a large-scale virtuosic work written so that Beethoven could display his outstanding skills as a performer. The work is brilliant and difficult. It prefigures Beethoven's later masterwork, the "Waldstein" sonata, opus 53 in C major. Biret plays this piece with surprising force and athleticism.
The outer two movements of this sonata are large, spacious, and ambitious. The opening allegro con brio is full of extensive passages in thirds and, sixths, long runs, and broken octaves. The movement concludes with a large cadenza passage with extended arpeggios and glissando passages. The finale, marked allegro assai, is also concerto-like with its theme in large rising chords contrasting with more lyrical passages. This movement concludes as well with a lengthy cadenza, including a long passage of double trills similar to that in the finale of the Waldstein sonata. The inner movements of Opus 2 no. 3 consist of an adagio in the distant key of E which has the character of an aria. The theme is mostly given quietly, but returns late in the movement under a series of forceful chords. The third movement of opus 2 no. 3 is a quickly paced and playful scherzo.
Beethoven's opus ten set of sonatas was published in 1798 and dedicated to a patron, the Countess von Browne. Of the three works in opus 10, Biret plays the first here, the sonata in C minor. This is a work that I have attempted myself and it is frequently given to moderately advanced piano students.
C minor was Beethoven's "heroic" key which he used in the Sonata Pathetique composed soon after this work, the Fifth Symphony, and many other compositions. Opus 10 no 1, if not as well known as the Pathetique, is an important sonata in its own right. It is short, terse, angular, and rhythmical. The opening movement, allegro molto e con brio, opens with an angry outburst in C minor with dotted, rhythms and dramatic pauses. The beats and stresses of the music change markedly as this tautly composed movement progresses. The second movement is marked adagio molto. For the last time in a Beethoven piano sonata, this movement uses heavy and florid ornamentation. The movement concludes with an extensive coda in which the theme sings in the bass line as if it were a cello. The finale is marked prestisimmo and is based on a short, knocking theme which returns to the mood of the opening movement. Mid-way in the movement, a four note phrase briefly appears, which is the first appearance in Beethoven of what would become the famous opening of the Fifth Symphony.
Beethoven's third set of three sonatas, opus 31, appeared in 1803 and were published without a dedication.
This set marks a decided advance over the sets of opus 2 and opus 10 and show Beethoven at the beginning of what is frequently referred to as his "middle period". Each of the works in opus 31 has its own character. On this CD, Biret performs the third of the set in E-flat major which is sometimes referred to as the "Hunt" sonata. It is the only one of the opus 31 sonatas in four movements.
In his book "Playing the Beethoven Sonatas", the pianist Robert Taub writes of the opening movement" "an unexpectedly delightful aspect of performing Sonata Op. 31 no. 3 is the good-humored quizzical, unsettled sensation created at the very beginning of the work: the music starts, the harmonies are ambiguous, and the music slows down and stops after a crescendo on an unstable second inversion chord -- all this in only the first six measures." (p. 165) Throughout the movement, Beethoven juxtaposes music of harmonic uncertainty with a lively, fast moving theme rooted squarely in e-flat major. The opening movement holds the listener's attention wonderfully through its use of these contrasting musical tendencies.
The E-flat major sonata is also unusual in that it lacks a slow movement. The second movement is a scherzo written in the unusual meter of 2/4 rather than 3/4. It is strongly rhythmical, with a forward drive, busy, and bouncy. The third movement of the work is a minuet with a song-like theme that grows more intense as its proceeds. The finale, marked presto con fuoco in 6/8 time is a mad, sweeping, highly accentuated dance in the form of a tarentella. It brings a Haydesque yet outstandingly original work to a close.
The three sonatas on this CD, opus 2 no. 3, opus 10 no. 1, and opus 31 no 3 are not among Beethoven's most often played piano sonatas. They will be likely known primarily to listeners who have lived with this music. They all are highly worth hearing. This set of recordings by Idil Biret offers an excellent introduction into these sonatas and into the world of Beethoven's piano sonatas.
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 early Opus 3 sonata (3) is worth hearing, just as much as the later Opus 10 (1) or Opus 31 (3).
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.