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James Manheim, February 2011

Turkish pianist Idil Biret’s Beethoven sonata cycle, issued on her own Idil Biret Archive label and distributed by the energetic Naxos, has gained strength as it has proceeded into Beethoven’s famous and ambitious works, where Biret has genuinely new insights to offer. Here she offers an odd pair of sonatas that are rarely programmed together: the Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13, “Pathétique,” and Piano Sonata No. 29 in B flat major, Op. 106, “Hammerklavier.” In both, Biret offers her trademark deliberate, slowly developing readings that begin quietly and almost neutrally, accumulating small details as they go and assembling them into a motivically tightly knit structure. Biret is not the pianist you want to go to for the Beethoven that shakes his fist at fate, but there are plenty of other choices there. And indeed, you might not think of her as a first choice for the “Hammerklavier,” a borderline unplayable work that almost seems to demand a maximum expenditure of sheer power. And this is just what makes her reading so compelling. Where other pianists push the tempo of the opening movement, Biret slows down enough to turn the half-step in the opening statements of the theme from a slight bit of color to a structurally important detail. The first movement in her “Hammerklavier” is rife with such details, and hers is perhaps the only version in which the movement emerges as a full counterpart to the giant, tragic slow movement and the final fugue. It’s a rich, profoundly considered reading in which Biret can take a very daring step—pushing the tempo in the contrapuntal complications toward the end—and still have everything hang together. This is one of the definitive versions, perhaps the definitive version, of this sonata, so often considered a difficult work, but here absolutely compelling. The circumspect but intelligent “Pathétique,” full of significant rhythmic touches in the left-hand part, is also well worth the listener’s time. This album was not newly recorded for the series but dates from a recording made in Stuttgart in 1985 and issued in the U.S. on an arm of, remarkably enough, the Atlantic label. The early digital sound has been nicely remastered for this release, and the reissue was an intelligent move at this point in the series; this “Hammerklavier” is extraordinary., December 2010

LISZT, F.: Sonata in B minor / Grandes Etudes de Paganini (Biret Solo Edition, Vol. 1) 8.571282
BEETHOVEN, L. van: Piano Sonatas Nos. 8 and 29 (Biret Archive Edition, Vol. 8) 8.571283

Fans of Turkish pianist Idil Biret, who may have been trying to keep up with the impressive number of her recordings being released on the IBA (Idil Biret Archives) label, now have yet another IBA series to appreciate—or contend with. And on top of that, an existing IBA series is complicating decision-making for listeners who may want to do something other than collect every disc that IBA ever releases. These are not bad problems to have: Biret is a wonderful pianist, with technique to spare and a thoughtful approach to the music she plays that, when it works well and does not interfere with a certain feeling of abandon and apparent spontaneity, produces top-notch recordings that show Biret to be a worthy successor to her mentor, Wilhelm Kempff. The two newest IBA releases are in fact among the label’s most impressive, for all that they may create some confusion among collectors.

What is new here is the Idil Biret Solo Edition, whose very first volume includes an outstanding performance of an exceptionally difficult piece, and one that Biret has clearly thought through to an unusually impressive degree: Liszt’s monumental Sonata in B Minor. More an extended tone poem than a sonata in a traditional sense, this half-hour work progresses through six movements (or six sections of one gigantic movement) with implacability and tremendous demands on the pianist’s technique. The recording here is the most recent released on any CD by IBA, dating to January 2010, and it shows that Biret, who is now 69, has lost none of her fervor or pianistic or analytical ability. Her Liszt performance soars: she tracks the multiple themes that permeate it with skill, providing it with overall structural integrity—so crucial in this work, which can easily get away from the performer if not held tightly in check. Biret emphasizes the unity of the sonata’s disparate elements, effectively bringing out everything from the uses and reuses of the themes to the fugal handling of part of the second theme—and she observes the work’s wide-ranging dynamics very impressively indeed. This is, in short, a performance that succeeds on all levels. Next to the sonata, the Grandes Etudes de Paganini seem almost slight—not in their virtuosic requirements, which are enormous, but in their musical content. Biret’s performance here, which dates to 1987, is not quite as impressive as her reading of the sonata, largely because her thoughtfulness is somewhat misplaced in a series of pieces that are all about display and unceasing virtuosity. These studies are on works as different—and yet as similar—as Paganini’s solo-violin etudes and the famous “La Campanella” finale of his second violin concerto. Liszt’s transformation of the pieces for piano is extremely clever and very, very difficult, and certainly Biret handles the technical demands here quite well. What the performance lacks is a certain élan, perhaps a touch of insouciance, as if it is no big deal to toss off all these fireworks. Biret’s pianism is nevertheless highly impressive, and the new Idil Biret Solo Edition is poised to be a real treat for her fans.

The Idil Biret Archive Edition, however, is now making things rather complex. The latest volume in this series, which is the eighth, includes two Beethoven sonatas recorded in 1985—one of which, the “Pathétique,” is already available in the Idil Biret Beethoven Edition, Volume 12, which in turn is the sixth volume of the sonatas in that edition (the numbering is more than slightly confusing). The Beethoven Edition reading of the “Pathétique” dates to 2006. The “Hammerklavier” has yet to appear in the Beethoven series but will surely do so in the future. Will listeners, even devoted Biret fans, want multiple Biret performances of the same music from different times, sold in different IBA series? This is not an easy question to answer, since the Archive Edition version of the “Pathétique” differs in several ways from the Beethoven Edition reading, but not to such an extent that a listener will likely feel the need to own both. The Archive Edition recording is speedier in all three movements, especially the first, and has a generally lighter feel to it than the Beethoven Edition one. Biret here clearly avoids an overly Romantic view of this sonata, keeping it expressive but within the bounds of Mozart and early Beethoven. The finale, in particular, trips along effectively. Neither of the two Biret recordings is better or worse—they are simply different, showing her somewhat different views of this music two decades apart. As for the Archive Edition version of the “Hammerklaivier,” it is very fine indeed. The huge sonata marches strongly from the start in Biret’s interpretation, and she manages to keep its sprawl coherent through her entire 46-and-a-half-minute performance—a most impressive achievement. The one movement that is a touch less successful than the others is the third, which Biret does not hesitate to take as slowly as its tempo indication of Adagio sostenuto indicates—but which tends to flag rhythmically from time to time, losing some of its admittedly slow forward motion. Nevertheless, this is a highly successful performance of a very difficult sonata, showing again—if additional showings are needed—that Biret and Beethoven go together very, very well.

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