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The Making of the Complete Works of Chopin
The world premiere recordings by Idil Biret 1990-1992

 

~Excerpts from an archival retrospective by Sefik Yüksel~

In June 1989 Idil Biret received an offer from the then newly-established Naxos label to record Chopin’s complete works for piano solo and for piano and orchestra. Without hesitation she accepted to undertake this monumental task. This was a project that would be the dream and dread of many a pianist, and the past decades were full of projects to record Chopin’s complete works which had remained unfinished for various reasons.

Idil Biret was not known as a Chopin performer. Indeed, unti
l she started recording for Naxos she had played few of his works in public. During much of her career she had stayed distant from Chopin. There were reasons for this. In describing her attitude towards Chopin in her early years Biret says,

”I had listened to very bad and sentimental Chopin performances during my childhood. In some circles Chopin had become the synonym of teary sentimental music. It was sad that a musician who composed in a classical perfection the least self complacent works got so misunderstood. Then, later at the Conservatoire I heard some mechanical and inexperienced performances by students. I felt distanced from Chopin because of these early experiences and for many years I did not play his works and I did not even have many records of his works in my library. Later, I started studying the Sonata op.58 and subsequently, as a ‘morceaux impose’ at the Conservatoire, the Ballade no.2. Then in 1958 I went to work with Wilhelm Kempff in Ammerland (near
Munich) and it was during these days that I played much Chopin. Kempff liked Chopin very much and always wanted to hear me playing his works. I started looking at Chopin anew in working with Kempff. Later, when I started playing Scriabin, in my search for the origins of his inspiration I found Chopin. So, I reached him indirectly through various different experiences.”

Later Biret studied with Alfred Cortot, considered by many as the greatest Chopin interpreter of the 20th Century, for two years when he was in his eighties. With him Biret worked on almost the entire Chopin repertory. Cortot’s teachings were in the great tradition of Chopin performance of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Biret remembers vividly “the glorious, magica
l sounds that came from the piano when Cortot put his hands on it; almost like that of a cello, as she recalled in a recent interview on BBC Radio. But, in the 1960s a percussive approach to piano playing was taking shape as displayed in the performances of the many young pianists of the new generation. The major labels were recording and promoting these pianists and the critics were busy heaping praises on this ‘lively’ new style of Chopin playing. Cortot and his delicate, complex performance style with a rainbow of nuances were being left behind in preference to the simpler forte and piano muscular, energetic performance style of the new era. Together with other great Chopin performers of the pre-war generation, Cortot was seen as a relic of the past (or so it was thought). His Chopin performances were forgotten by almost all except a dedicated group of connoisseurs, only a handful being available on LP in the Angel/EMI “Great Recordings of the Century” series. Things stayed this way for a considerable time until the arrival of the compact disc in the 1980s leading to the reissue on CD and rediscovery of the legendary performances of the great pianists of the past.

Biret says that in this environment she had little enthusiasm to play Chopin and indeed only few of his works - Sonata op.58, Andante Spianato et Grande Polonaise op.22 and some Mazurkas - were in her concert programs during the 1960s and 1970s. The writer of this article was present at one of these occasions when in the 1970s she played Chopin’s 2nd Piano Concerto. The eminent Turkish composer, conductor and pianist Cemal Resit Rey, a student and close friend of Cortot, was in the audience. After hearing the outstanding performance he raised his arms in the air and uttered the words “En nihayet Chopin’i kesfetti” (Finally she has discovered Chopin). This was followed by a first tentative foray into the recording of two Chopin Mazurkas in
New York (Atlantic/Finnadar SR125) in 1977. Biret then programmed the four Chopin Impromptus in her recital programs of her two month - thirty concert Australian tour in the spring of 1984. She performed these Impromptus at her first Herkulessaal recital in Munich the same year. The eminent music critic Karl Schumann, who knew Cortot well and had written the music notes for the Centennial Cortot edition (EMI), wrote the following in the Süddeutsche Zeitung:

”A Chopin evening with Idil Biret must be a blessing. The four Impromptus sounded compact, sharp, well-studied, neither sobered down to agile finger virtuosity, nor softened to an elegy. The form was ostentatiously existent. Details of declamation made it possible to discern an understanding of Chopin which emanates from the masterly acquisition of the French school. The melancholy had a grace; a subdued lustre lay over the Jeu perle.”

This was the first critical acknowledgement of Biret as an outstanding Chopin performer.

In 1985-86 Idil Biret recorded for EMI Liszt’s piano transcriptions of the nine Beethoven Symphonies which was issued in
Europe during the Liszt Centennial.  These recordings and her concert performances of all the Symphonies in major music centres made the headlines, particularly in the French and German press. Subsequently, Biret received a call from the editor of a major music magazine in Germany who advised her about the newly established Naxos record label and informed her that the owner Klaus Heymann wanted to talk to her for a possible cooperation. This was followed by a call from Mr. Heymann, and Idil Biret met him in Brussels in June 1989. After an initial enquiry whether Naxos could reissue Biret’s Beethoven Symphonies recordings (this was not then possible for contractual reasons), unexpectedly he asked the question, Would you like to record the complete works of Chopin for Naxos? Without a moment’s hesitation Biret answered with a short “Yes”. Vladimir Ashkenazy had recorded all the solo works of Chopin for Decca in the 1970s. However, no one before had recorded the complete Chopin including the works for piano and orchestra. It was a frightening decision, or so it would seem to an outsider, particularly since Naxos wanted the recordings to be completed quickly, in a very short time span.

Biret also agreed to record some Brahms and Rachmaninov (later extended to their complete piano works) for
Naxos. Therefore, she started with these and produced five Brahms CDs during ten days of recording sessions at the van Geest studio in Heidelberg in the autumn of 1989. Then from the beginning of 1990 she immersed herself into the world of Chopin for a period of two years. In preparing to record the Mazurkas, the Nocturnes, the Ballades, the Polonaises, the Concertos and all the other works, there was intense systematic study of the scores and writings on interpreting Chopin (particularly from the accounts of Chopin’s students in the remarkable book by Jean Jacques Eigeldinger) and listening to the great Chopin performers of the past from her own large library of Chopin recordings numbering nearly 200 LPs and CDs, followed by a period of reflection. Nearly 400 hours of music was recorded in about 45 days of studio sessions in Heidelberg and Kosice (Czechoslovakia) between March 1990 and February 1992.  Recordings started with the most difficult set of the Etudes and ended with the Fantaisie, Berceuse and the 3 Nouvelles Etudes. Biret wrote a short article on interpreting Chopin for the CD notes where she explained her approach in preparing for the performance and recording of the complete works - a fifteen-CD, seventeen-hour odyssey through the music of Frederic Chopin . . .
 
. . .In view of Biret’s studies at the Paris Conservatoire and the importance of Chopin to French music, a decision was made to make a major promotional effort in France to coincide with the release of the complete Chopin set (15 CDs). After obtaining the help and support of Idil Biret’s friend, the Turkish Ambassador Tansug Bleda, a public relations campaign was launched. Three months of interviews and press and radio publicity followed, climaxing with an all-Chopin recital by Biret on
16 November 1992 for invited guests at the concert hall of the Ancienne Conservatoire in Paris where Chopin, Liszt and Berlioz had performed in the 1830s. Special permission was obtained from the French Ministry of Culture to open the hall for this purpose. After the performance, the first copy of the complete Chopin set was given to Biret on the stage by Yves Riesel, the organizer of the event and the representative for the Naxos distributor in France. Klaus Heymann attended the concert as the proud realiser of the project. Two eminent British music critics, Ivan March and Jeremy Nicholas, came to the Paris concert and conducted interviews with Biret. Subsequently, Ivan March’s interview was published by Gramophone, and he also wrote an excellent long article in the Penguin CD Guide’s 1994 edition on Biret’s complete Chopin:

”The Turkish pianist Idil Biret has recorded a Complete Chopin edition for Naxos…She has all the credentials for the undertaking…Among others she studied with Alfred Cortot and Wilhelm Kempff…She has a prodigious technique and the recordings we have heard so far suggest that overall her Chopin survey is an impressive achievement…The disc called Rondos and Variations is worth anyone’s money…The three Sonatas represent one of the finest achievements of Idil Biret’s series so far…”

Jeremy Nicholas wrote a five page article in the magazine Classic CD (July 1993) titled “The Best Chopin Ever?”  There he said the following:

”Idil Biret isn’t a household name. That could soon change. Her complete set of Chopin’s piano music on
Naxos isn’t just an amazing bargain - it’s also world class. Any complete set of Chopin’s piano works on CD is important. With world class playing it’s remarkable. And at £5 per disc it’s astonishing…The diminutive Turkish pianist has recently released the last disc in a complete cycle of Chopin’s piano music. Since the cycle is for budget label Naxos and since Naxos is currently the third highest volume seller of discs worldwide, many people’s first taste of Chopin will be Biret’s.”

By then outstanding reviews of the recordings had began to appear in the press all over the world, particularly in the
United States and also in places like Greece, Spain, Argentina and others. In Turkey, Idil’s home country, many critics including Faruk Yener, Filiz Ali and Dogan Hizlan wrote laudatory articles. The great harpsichordist and musicologist Igor Kipnis (the son of the legendary Russian singer Alexander Kipnis) who had written an excellent review in the American Stereophile magazine came to visit Biret in Brussels saying he wanted to meet personally this outstanding Chopin interpreter. A series of Chopin concerts was organized at the Ruhr Festival with Biret playing Chopin and Germany’s foremost critic Joachim Kaiser providing spoken commentary. She played at Chopin Festivals in Duszniki in Poland and in in Paris and in Nohant at the estate of George Sand. In 1993 the readers of Classic CD magazine in the UK selected Biret’s Chopin Preludes CD as the “Best Buy” of the year, and she received the award at a ceremony in London. Radio France Musique made Biret the pianist of the month in October 1994 and her Chopin and other recordings were broadcast for one hour every day during the month. Biret gave many all-Chopin recitals in cities like London, Munich, Rome, Istanbul, Tokyo and New York.

Then, in 1995 in
Poland the Grand Prix du Disque Frederic Chopin award was given to Biret for her complete Chopin. This competition is held once every five years in Warsaw and there were 43 recording entries that year with two receiving the prizes. Biret received the award at a public ceremony held at the Chopin Museum at the Ostrogski Castle in Warsaw on 9 October where she also gave a recital with the works of Bach and Chopin. After the ceremony the president of the Polish Chopin Society Tadeusz Chimielewski came onto the stage, kissed Biret’s hand, and told her, “You play Chopin as my heart wants to hear it.” Some three decades after the teachings of Cortot, Biret’s Chopin performances in the tradition of the old masters had finally won hearts and minds.
[Interestingly, also in 1995 Idil Biret’s recording of the three piano Sonatas of Pierre Boulez received ovations from critics in Europe, USA, and Australia and won a Diapason d’Or of the Year award in France. Coming in the aftermath of the Chopin award this was indicative of the depth and breadth of Biret’s command of the piano repertoire. ]

In 1999 for the 150th Chopin anniversary year Naxos released the box set of Biret’s complete Chopin recordings worldwide with a new design and with the Polish Grand Prix emblem on the cover. The same year a very strange incident took place. Idil Biret was invited to perform in a four concert Chopin series organised by the prestigious Schwetzingen Festival in
Germany. Each concert was to be preceded by a conference by Prof. Joachim Kaiser. The announced schedule was as follows

13 May - Lilya Silberstein
14 May - Anatol Ugorsky
15 May - Idil Biret
16 May - Andrei Gavrilov

On 14 May in the early afternoon in Brussels Idil Biret received a call from the director of the Festival, Dr. Peter Schreiber, who informed her that a few hours before Anatol Ugorski had said that he was not feeling well and departed from the city. This had left the organizers in a very difficult position as the concert that evening was sold out and could not be cancelled. The question was whether Idil could replace Ugorski with any Chopin program? Idil asked what Ugorski had programmed to play. When she was told that this consisted of the Polonaise Fantasy op.61, 12 Mazurkas and Sonata op.58 Idil Biret replied that she would play exactly the same program.

She then took the
6.00 pm flight to Stuttgart where a helicopter was waiting which flew her to Mannheim. From there it was a short drive to Schwetzingen. After a brief try on the piano she began the concert at 9.00 pm, with only one hour delay from the original schedule. The next day Prof. Kaiser started his pre-concert conference by saying to the audience,

”The pianist you will hear tonight, Idil Biret, is a very special musician. She has recorded on 15 CDs the complete piano works of Frederic Chopin. She is also a great artist who is able to give a concert in the evening without knowing that she would do so the same morning; playing as well the very same program originally scheduled for that concert by another pianist as she did last night.”    
 
. . .Patrick Meanor, who had interviewed Biret in New York on the day she learnt that her complete Chopin was awarded a ‘Grand Prix du Disque Chopin’ in Warsaw, finished his article in the Listener magazine by saying,

”After and hour and a half - which felt like ten minutes - I sadly departed from one of the most gracious and egoless major musical figures on the planet. What I found in her music, I found in her: a clarity, a richness, a warmth and openness that I so rarely encounter in anyone. That kind of graciousness is quietly but quickly disappearing from an almost totally commercialized musica
l scene, that has become predictable and safe. Thank heavens there are Idil Birets around to remind us that music is still a human proposition.”

Finally, a message that was sent to
Naxos in England anonymously perhaps sums it all:

”If music be the food of love, I think I’ve fallen for Idil Biret!!!”

The prophecy Jeremy Nicholas had made in his Classic CD article in 1993 has come true. Tens of thousands of people of all ages all over the world from major cities to remote towns are listening to Idil Biret’s recordings of Chopin thanks to
Klaus Heymann and Naxos with the efficient distribution and budget conscious policy of selling newly recorded CDs inexpensively.

 

Written by Sefik Buyukyuksel
Brussels, January 2003

For the complete text of this article or more information about Idil Biret, please go to www.idilbiret.org.










 
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