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See latest reviews of other albums..., November 2009

Keyboard Subtleties

There are interesting contrasts between the interpretations of a distinguished pianist taught by some of the grand masters of the earlier 20th century—and those of one of those masters himself. The latest Idil Biret Archives issue—12th in her Beethoven Edition and sixth in her cycle of the piano sonatas—includes recordings of Sonata No. 4 from 2002, No. 8 from 2006 and No. 27 from 2004. As in all her more-recent recordings appearing on the IBA label, Biret shows considerable sensitivity and lyricism in these readings, allowing herself rubato (but not to excess) while letting the structural underpinnings of the music come through clearly. The first two movements of No. 4, which are dark and brooding, come off particularly well here; the lighter third and fourth movements are a touch less impressive, as if Biret cannot quite let go of the solemnity of the earlier part of this sonata—but they are certainly well played. In the “Pathétique” (whose name, unlike those of several other famous Beethoven sonatas, was chosen by the composer himself), Biret plays for depth and drama throughout, but at the same time highlights the work’s careful structure (for instance, the compressed dynamics of the finale prior to the return of the first subject). Thus, she melds emotion to intellect—a common approach for her, and one that works particularly well here. It does not come across quite so well in Sonata No. 27, a proto-Romantic work in which Biret’s focus on control is insufficiently leavened by emotional expressiveness. This two-movement work is a difficult sonata to interpret and not an especially popular one with listeners. Biret handles it with skill and with sensitivity to, among other things, the first movement’s key changes and the second’s decorative flourishes; but it feels almost as if she dissects the music rather than allowing it a natural flow.

Biret is a disciple of Alfred Corot and Wilhelm Kempff, not Claudio Arrau, but it is nevertheless interesting to contrast her Beethoven with Arrau’s 1974 recordings of Schumann’s Kinderszenen and Brahms’ Paganini Variations. Arrau is all suppleness and flow on Pentagon’s SACD re-release. The Schumann is comparatively easy to play, and some pianists tend to overwhelm it as a result. Not Arrau. He takes these small childhood scenes—remembrances, really, by a composer who wrote them when he was not yet 30—and plays each with straightforward simplicity that nevertheless hints at subtleties just beneath the surface. Arrau makes it possible to enjoy the 13-movement suite entirely at face value, as a divertissement, and then return for another hearing in which it seems there is more going on than appeared at first. The delicacy and balance here are quite special. And for out-and-out virtuosity, there is the contrast with Brahms’ very theatrical handling of a Paganini theme—in a work whose première the composer himself performed. These variations are all about technique, and are very tough to play indeed, but Arrau makes their difficulties subservient to their excitement as he builds each of the work’s two “books” (which contain 14 variations apiece) toward breathless climaxes. There is something unassuming rather than flashy in Arrau’s pianism, which in these two works he puts so clearly at the service of the composers’ very different intentions. The result is a disc that is simply a delight to hear.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, October 2009

We can expect the unexpected in Biret’s Beethoven piano sonata cycle, one of the most interesting to appear in recent times. This disc certainly continues that trend with the Turkish-born pianist offering one of the most powerful readings of the Fourth I have encountered, the work emerging as a harbinger of the music that was yet to come from Beethoven. The slow movement has profundity, then chameleon-like Biret plays the opening of the third movement with Mozartian delicacy, before returning to her first movement weight in the finale. Avoiding the temptation of doing something different when faced with a deluge Pathetique recordings already available, Biret opts for a literal reading, the Rondo finale making a very happy conclusion. The Twenty-seventh is one of the more rarely heard and is cast in just two short movements, the magical moment in the performance coming with the quiet ending to the first and the radiant opening of the finale. The recordings were made over a period of four years from 2002, but are all of pleasing quality.

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