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Between the Lines: Idil Biret talks to Jeremy Siepmann

October 1, 2013

Idil Biret

If you have the impression that Idil Biret carries in her head and fingers the entire piano repertoire, you are not so much wrong as premature. There are isolated pockets still awaiting her attention, but if she carries on as she has in the past, welcome committees should be standing at the ready. Her appetite for music is more than voracious; it is apparently unlimited. And it always was. Try as she may, she cannot remember a time when music was not central to her life.

‘It was always there. My mother was a very accomplished amateur pianist, with a great love of Beethoven, Brahms, Liszt and Schumann, my grandmother played the piano very well, and I had uncles who were very gifted musically, but they were all amateurs. My father loved music very much too, though he wasn’t himself a player. I grew up surrounded by people who adored music, and it’s really no exaggeration to say that music was as natural to me as speaking.’

And what went for music in general went for the piano as well. From the beginning, like her beloved Chopin, she took to the instrument so easily that technique was never a problem. ‘I started just by copying my mother. Whatever she was playing, it was never really a struggle for me. I just found my own way to get what I wanted, musically speaking. Of course my hands were very small, especially when I was four years old, so I would even use my elbows to get certain effects. I had the most unorthodox fingering you can imagine!’

And was she ever under parental pressure to make music, and piano-playing in particular, her career? ‘Oh no. Not at all. Never. Actually, it was a long time before I myself felt that I really wanted to be solely a musician. At the age of 17, though I was already very advanced at the piano, my great ambition was to become a medical doctor. It may sound strange, but at that time this was the only thing that really interested me professionally. But I realised that it would take me a very long time, and I began to doubt whether I actually had what it took to become a really good doctor, and I realised that to become a bad doctor was even more dangerous than to become a bad pianist! So I decided to go ahead with my music. But at that time it was a second best.’

Biret was blessed with a whole slew of outstanding teachers, but her three greatest mentors were among the most legendary musicians of the 20th century: Nadia Boulanger, Alfred Cortot and Wilhelm Kempff—very great but very different artists. I wondered if it was possible to summarise the most important things she learned from each. ‘You know, strangely enough, their priorities were remarkably similar. They all agreed on playing “into the keys”, playing with real depth of sound, not just superficially—and they all placed great emphasis on the cultivation and perfection of legato. Kempff and Cortot were actually great friends, and often played together, and Boulanger, too, laid great stress on legato. Like Kempff, she was an organist, and she had an organ in her living room. To indicate to me the deficiencies in my legato at that stage she would have me play certain passages on the organ so that I could hear very precisely how it sounded. And of course it sounded terrible, because the legato—the true legato—simply wasn’t there. She taught me a great deal about fingerings, through the example of organ fingerings. Another thing which I got from all three was teaching me to map out the main points of tension, the modulations, the importance of harmony as an agent of structure etc. It was really a very thorough approach to interpretation. Absolutely nothing was superficial in their approach.’

Biret has played a great number and variety of transcriptions. Does she, at the piano, tend to think in orchestral terms? Does she find herself ‘scoring’ the music in her head? ‘Not really. And if I do, if I think of this or that passage in terms of another instrument, it won’t be anything of central importance to me. What matters a great deal to me is the polyphony. Every line has to have its own life. This is something I’m always trying to achieve: to have this sort of independence of the line. Also, it has to be horizontal without losing sight of the verticality, if I can put it that way. It’s complicated to explain but it’s truly something of the essence.’

The catholicity, the breadth, the sheer size of Biret’s repertoire is positively stunning. Are there any composers whose music she actively dislikes, or who simply leave her cold? ‘You know I really think there isn’t any composer that I actively dislike. But there’s something related but very different: compositions that I love to listen to, but not to play. Schubert, for instance, is one of my favourite composers to listen to, but it frustrates me, specifically as a pianist, that he doesn’t explore all the possibilities of the piano. There’s a kind of strictly pianistic pleasure that I often don’t find in his music. Sometimes, yes. In the Wanderer Fantasy he exploits a lot of possibilities. But in the sonatas, not so much. Not for me anyway. Where I find an ideal collaboration is in Liszt’s arrangements of Schubert’s songs. The music, of course, is absolutely heavenly, but in Liszt’s transcriptions there are also all the possibilities that the piano can offer.’

And how was it that she came to know and champion Liszt’s quite miraculous transcriptions of the Beethoven symphonies? ‘When I was a child, after I heard the symphonies of Beethoven and Brahms—or whatever—on records or in concert, I would rush to the piano and play them. By ear, of course. As I said, this was something I could always do. In doing this, I was making my own arrangements (though not very orthodox ones). When I was asked by EMI in 1986 to record two of the Beethoven’s symphonies in Liszt’s arrangements, that opened the door to recording the whole cycle. I had to be very careful with the Liszt transcriptions, though, which of course were very different and much more sophisticated and inspired than my own efforts. I had to be acutely aware of every little thing, every tiny detail that was written there.’

With 100 records down and still counting, I presumed that Biret enjoys the process of recording. ‘I do. I love the silence of the studio, and its conduciveness to concentration. The way that you’re able to really listen to the music, and strive to be completely immersed in it. I never have the feeling that I’m isolated, or anything like that. I love playing in the concert hall, in front of an audience, but I have to say I’m never frustrated, in the studio, by the absence of an audience. I actively like the microphone. And I very much believe that recording and listening to oneself with complete objectivity is the greatest teacher you can possibly have. The experience of the recording studio gives you the opportunity to hear at all times just what you’re doing, in a way that isn’t always easy in the hall, with all its distractions. In a way I think it’s genuinely inspiring.’

The recording studio and the concert hall are, of course, very different venues. Does Biret in any way play differently, however slightly, in the one as opposed to the other? Does the studio enable her to do certain things that might not come off equally well in the hall? ‘Basically one doesn’t change important things. But when you’re playing in a sequence of different halls, you have to adjust, or try to adjust, to the acoustical environment, not only of the hall itself, or the church, or whatever, but to the circumstances within it. A hall or church will sound significantly different according to the size of the audience, and when one is playing in a very reverberant, spacious acoustic, one has to change one’s pedalling, for instance, if the details of your playing are in danger of being swamped. Likewise, if you’re playing in a place with a very dry acoustic, you need not only more pedal, but sometimes to alter the textural balances to enhance the harmonic depth, the richness of the overall sonority etc. You may have to vary the details of articulation, and this can sometimes involve significant changes in tempo. Of course these considerations don’t arise in the recording studio. But the most important thing, I think, is that whatever the circumstances, you should absolutely never force the sound.’

Given her colossal repertoire, I thought it safe to assume a) that Biret is a very good sightreader and b) that she memorises both quickly and retentively? ‘As I mentioned earlier, even as a young child, I remembered immediately everything I heard. When I started learning how to read the music, I had big problems. I didn’t understand why I had to learn it that way, when I could so easily play anything the moment I’d heard it. Of course when I entered the Paris Conservatoire I learned to sightread, in a different way. But I’ve never been a naturally good sight reader. Where my acquired ability has definitely come in handy, though, is in the playing of contemporary music, where I have to be very careful indeed to play all the things that are written.’

Moving beyond and behind the impressive litany of her worldly successes and prodigious achievements, I ventured, not without some hesitation, to ask whether Biret had faced any significant frustrations in the course of her career. ‘The greatest frustrations have been when I’ve failed, for whatever reason, to reach the highest standards of which I’m capable. When I’ve been unable to illuminate the essential polyphony of music (when, for instance, not all the notes have sounded). This has always been central to my outlook: to give each line a different life. And sometimes, in some of my recordings, this kind of thing has happened because of the piano (this is the kind of frustration all pianists have to live with). Another thing is when you’re not 100% sincere to yourself. And here I can’t help remembering something Nadia Boulanger used to say: “Don’t cheat!” If one starts cheating, in one way or another, this is definitely a sort of frustration.’

And what’s on the horizon now—recorded or otherwise? ‘Well, coming up in October on Naxos is a complete recording, with the Yale Symphony Orchestra, of Hindemith’s works for piano and orchestra, including the Left-Hand Concerto, which had its world première, with Leon Fleisher, as recently as 2004, and which is a very interesting work. And because, as you’ve pointed out, the number of my recordings has now reached 100, there’s a major new retrospective, featuring the re-release of all my recordings. It will consist of nine boxed sets—the Beethoven, Brahms and Liszt recordings are already released—and in September Naxos will release, on the IBA label, a box featuring my complete LP recordings. The other boxes in the collection will be devoted to Chopin, Rachmaninov and Schumann, the recordings of 20th-century repertoire and the complete concerto recordings. And hopefully the complete edition will be available by 2014.’

In the light of this tremendous retrospective, I wondered if Biret still recognises herself when she hears her earliest recordings. ‘Well you know, to be perfectly honest I really don’t spend much time listening to my own recordings. But on the whole, I don’t think I’ve changed very much in my approach to pianism and interpretation. I think my outlook, my perspectives, have been pretty consistent. There is, however, an ever present risk of losing one’s sense of spontaneity. And I must say there was one period where this happened to me, where I did lose something of this sense, this freshness. And that of course was a problem for me.’

Biret speaks with candour, perspective and disarming readiness about such things as frustration, challenges, problems. And her humility reveals itself without show. I was not, therefore, altogether surprised at her response when I asked if there was anything in her illustrious past that she would identify as her most important achievement. ‘Achievement! Oh mon Dieu! I think the answer to this question is probably always changing. One’s perspectives are forever shifting. But if you press me, I think perhaps the complete Beethoven symphonies, arranged by Liszt, may be the most important thing. But I think also of the Chopin mazurkas. These are the only two things I can think of at present—though I might toy with including the Beethoven sonatas as well. But I really feel very hesitant trying to make a choice here!’

With a positive embarrassment of riches clamouring for attention, such diffidence is understandable. In any case, Idil Biret, like all true artists, lives with her mind on higher pursuits, indeed the highest—which is one of the reasons we listen to her.

Jeremy Siepmann is an internationally acclaimed writer, musician, teacher, broadcaster and editor.

Idil Biret Biography & Discography


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