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Gary Lemco
Audiophile Audition, November 2009

Turkish pianist Idil Biret (b. 1941) has established her own Idil Biret Archive (IBA) that preserves as many of her inscriptions as possible through former recording contracts with Pantheon, EMI, Marco Polo, Alpha, Vega, and this—taken from the BMP label archives, 1996 (Ravel D Major, 15 February), 1998 (Ravel G Major, 10 February), and 1999 (Saint-Saëns, 9 February). All three concertos were recorded in the Bilkent Symphony Hall, Ankara, Turkey. Despite the common thread of February in these concerto performances, the ambiance remains quite warm, opening with an electric and leisurely “Egyptian” Concerto in collaboration with the late Jean Fournet (1913–2008), who had made a magnificent version with Magda Tagliaferro for Philips in 1955. Glitter and acrobatic elegance, the eternal requisites for Saint-Saens, a perfect bravura vehicle for Biret. The always exotic Andante movement proceeds with an African flair quite sultry and atmospheric in the manner of a Muezzin call to prayer, the rising and falling fourths mixed with sinewy cadenzas. A touch of jazz syncopation informs the frisky last movement, Molto allegro, the progressive dark crescendos notwithstanding. The sheer panache and digital authority Biret brings to this exuberant work guarantees the price of admission.

The jazz idiom opens with a resounding smack in Ravel’s 1931 G Major Concerto, the colors in glissandi and pointillist octaves rampant. Biret keeps the keyboard singing and light, the studied tempos reminiscent of those set by Vlado Perlmuter and Jascha Horenstein in their classic Vox rendition. Wonderfully wrought staccati and octave runs from Biret as the horns and winds groups play syncopated passagework a la ragtime. The expressive passages carry as much delectable savoir faire as the fioritura escapades. Harp and bassoon add their fair share of color prior to the blaze of blues that wah-wah into the melodic contour. Gershwin himself would applaud this fiery first movement. The E Major Adagio proceeds in a serene and stately ¾,  soon evolving into a country serenade with flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon, soft-hued French horn. Biret’s high extended trill on B leads to an explosively colorful Presto, a real onslaught of jazzy strides. A kaleidoscopic circus rules in the last movement, the squawking irreverent winds, brass and battery intent on having the keyboard part lose itself in flippancies.

Ravel’s Left-Hand Concerto retains its power to shock and arrest, the contrabassoon taking us through a harmonic labyrinth that more often than not involves Dionysiac rites. Biret keeps the left-hand part fluid and active, always creating the effect of two hands in concert with wood-block, tam-tam, four horns, and harp and an assortment of colors in tempo and rhythm. The huge Lento section cascades with thundering cadenzas, then sings with brass, strings, and tympani to a climax that itself tumbles into a combination of lyrical or martial pageantry and motley sarcasm. A gorgeous cadenza, all bells and points of light, beguiles us until the waves of stamping energy swallow us whole. Quite a thrilling ride!, September 2009

BEETHOVEN, L. van: Piano Concertos, Vol. 3 (Biret) – No. 5, “Emperor” / Choral Fantasy (Biret Beethoven Edition, Vol. 11) 8.571261

BEETHOVEN, L. van: Symphonies (arr. F. Liszt for piano), Vol. 5, 6 (Biret) – Nos. 6, “Pastoral” and 9, “Choral” (Biret Beethoven Edition, Vol. 14, 15) 8.571264–65

SAINT-SAENS, C.: Piano Concerto No. 5 / RAVEL, M.: Piano Concerto in G major / Piano Concerto for the Left Hand (Biret Concerto Edition, Vol. 3) 8.571272

It is becoming increasingly difficult to keep up with the multitude of Idil Biret Archives releases of the Turkish pianist’s diverse and impressive recordings, both old and new. The Beethoven Edition CDs are really three series in one: the concertos, the sonatas and the Liszt transcriptions of the symphonies. And the Beethoven concerto sub-series is not to be confused with the Concerto Edition, which includes works by composers other than Beethoven. The Beethoven Edition itself is due to have 19 volumes, but Volume 12 has not yet been released—although 13 through [14 and] 15 have. And the various recordings showcase Biret, who was born in 1941, at very different times in her career. The three latest IBA releases include works recorded just last year (Volume 11 [8.571261]); ones recorded in 1986 (Volumes 14–15 [8.571264–65]); and, in Volume 3 of the Concerto Edition [8.571272], a Saint-Saëns performance from 1999, a Ravel G Major from 1998 and a Ravel Left-Hand Concerto from 1996.

[It may help to provide an ordered list here, current at October 2009 – Ed.]


Piano Concerto
BEETHOVEN, L. van: Piano Concertos, Vol. 1 (Biret) – Nos. 1, 2 (Biret Beethoven Edition, Vol. 3) 8.571253
BEETHOVEN, L. van: Piano Concertos, Vol. 2 (Biret) – Nos. 3, 4 (Biret Beethoven Edition, Vol. 7) 8.571257
BEETHOVEN, L. van: Piano Concertos, Vol. 3 (Biret) – No. 5, “Emperor” / Choral Fantasy (Biret Beethoven Edition, Vol. 11) 8.571261

Piano Sonatas
BEETHOVEN, L. van: Piano Sonatas, Vol. 1 (Biret) – Nos. 1, 2, 19, 20 (Biret Beethoven Edition, Vol. 1) 8.571251
BEETHOVEN, L. van: Piano Sonatas, Vol. 2 (Biret) – Nos. 3, 5, 18 (Biret Beethoven Edition, Vol. 4) 8.571254
BEETHOVEN, L. van: Piano Sonatas, Vol. 3 (Biret) – Nos. 7, 21, 25 (Biret Beethoven Edition, Vol. 5) 8.571255
BEETHOVEN, L. van: Piano Sonatas, Vol. 4 (Biret) – Nos. 23, 28, 31 (Biret Beethoven Edition, Vol. 8) 8.571258
BEETHOVEN, L. van: Piano Sonatas, Vol. 5 (Biret) – Nos. 9, 10, 13, 14 (Biret Beethoven Edition, Vol. 10) 8.571260
BEETHOVEN, L. van: Piano Sonatas, Vol. 6 (Biret) – Nos. 4, 8, 27 (Biret Beethoven Edition, Vol. 12) 8.571262

Symphonies (arr. Liszt)
BEETHOVEN, L. van: Symphonies (arr. F. Liszt for piano), Vol. 1 (Biret) – Nos. 1, 2 (Biret Beethoven Edition, Vol. 2) 8.571252
BEETHOVEN, L. van: Symphonies (arr. F. Liszt for piano), Vol. 2 (Biret) – Nos. 4, 5 (Biret Beethoven Edition, Vol. 6) 8.571256
BEETHOVEN, L. van: Symphonies (arr. F. Liszt for piano), Vol. 3 (Biret) – Nos. 7, 8 (Biret Beethoven Edition, Vol. 9) 8.571259
BEETHOVEN, L. van: Symphonies (arr. F. Liszt for piano), Vol. 4 (Biret) – No. 3, “Eroica” (Biret Beethoven Edition, Vol. 13) 8.571263
BEETHOVEN, L. van: Symphonies (arr. F. Liszt for piano), Vol. 5, 6 (Biret) – Nos. 6, “Pastoral” and 9, “Choral” (Biret Beethoven Edition, Vol. 14, 15) 8.571264–65


SCHUMANN, R.: Piano Concerto / GRIEG, E.: Piano Concerto (Biret Concerto Edition, Vol. 1) 8.571270
TCHAIKOVSKY, P.I.: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 3 (Biret Concerto Edition, Vol. 2) 8.571271
SAINT-SAENS, C.: Piano Concerto No. 5 / RAVEL, M.: Piano Concerto in G major / Piano Concerto for the Left Hand (Biret Concerto Edition, Vol. 3) 8.571272

What makes this confusion worth wading through are the artist at its center and the intellectual as well as emotional stimulation of hearing her highly organized, carefully structured approach to all this music—an approach that has remained remarkably consistent through the decades. Biret’s formidable technical skill is always placed at the service of carefully analyzed, fully thought-through interpretations that frequently show familiar works in a new light. This is not to say that her readings will be to all tastes. Quite the contrary: her latest CD of Liszt[‘s transcription of Beethoven’s] Ninth—the transcription over which Liszt labored longest and with the most misgivings—lasts almost an hour and a half, putting it at or beyond nearly all the symphonies by Mahler. In fact, the finale—which runs 32 minutes here—lasts nearly as long as Mahler’s longest single symphonic movement (the first movement of his Third Symphony). This…Beethoven for committed musicians who really want to understand the underlying skeletal framework of the composer’s final symphony, hear in great detail how the harmonies are built, how the themes relate to each other, how the careful choice of key structure seems to make the use of a chorus in the finale inevitable—a fascinating realization since, of course, there is no chorus in Liszt’s transcription. This is not at all an accessible performance, but it is one of great depth and intellectual rigor [8.571264–65].

Similarly, Biret keeps things slow and stately for the “Pastoral” symphony: she certainly has the power needed to bring forth the fourth-movement thunderstorm, but she seems more comfortable dissecting the second movement, “Scene by the Brook,” with such care that the usually flowing water seems positively stagnant. Biret pulls apart this music with tremendous care and understanding, but in so doing loses the forward momentum of the symphony as a whole. It is easier to appreciate this performance than to love it—but it is hard not to consider it revelatory. [8.571264–65]
Things are more straightforward in the “Emperor” concerto and Choral Fantasia [8.571261]. Biret prefers deliberate tempos here, too, but not to an inordinate extent. This “Emperor” has genuine majesty, with an especially expansive first movement that marches from start to finish with firmness and dignity. The magisterial approach continues through the second and third movements as well, with Antoni Wit and the Bilkent Symphony providing workmanlike support that keeps the focus on Biret while placing her dominance in a suitable context. In the Choral Fantasia…Biret’s control and ever-present understanding of the music are apparent and attractive, and the choral and orchestral sections complement her solo work very nicely indeed—leading to a rousing conclusion.

…Saint-Saëns’ final piano concerto, known as the “Egyptian” because the composer wrote it in Luxor and it reflects his impressions of Egypt and other areas to which he traveled, has stateliness and sweep in this performance, although the second movement, marked Andante, is a very slow-paced walk indeed. Biret does some particularly nice work with the jazzy finale—a rather forward-looking movement for 1896, especially considering the composer’s reputation as a conservative musical thinker. In Ravel’s G Major concerto, which dates to 1931, Biret pays close attention to the expressivity and nuances of the score…her top-notch technique stands her in good stead in the Presto finale. In the Concerto for the Left Hand, written in the same year, Biret’s intelligent and slightly cool approach brings out the score’s intricacies to fine effect, and the Bilkent Orchestra under Jean Fournet plays with understanding and a good sense of style—as it does in all three of these works. [8.571272]

David Denton
David's Review Corner, September 2009

Though Turkish by birth, Idil Biret was musically educated at the Paris Conservatoire under the guidance of Nadia Boulanger, and it was in France that she made her early career. If not in her life-blood, the music of that country was hers by adoption, a fact made plentifully clear in these very differing concertos. Though given the subtitle ‘Egyptian’, Saint-Saens’ Fifth was no more indebted to that country than as a tourists view. In three movements, the first weighty, the second rather sombre, it is the pure froth of the finale where Biret launches one of her blistering outbursts of unbridled virtuosity. It was this movement with its catchy tune that, at one time, made the concerto so popular, and if today’s audiences are not in this mood, they don’t know what they are missing. I would have liked much more feeling of thrusting energy in the opening of the Ravel two-hand concerto, but the orchestra are obviously feeling it fast enough at this tempo. Biret does pick up the tempo later, but that makes the Bilket more stressed, veteran conductor, Jean Fournet reining her in before the hectic ending. After a nice relaxed central Adagio, the final Presto is suitably vivacious. There is much to praise in the Left Hand Concerto, her ability in the closing pages to fool us that she is only using just one hand being remarkable. The disc appears to have come from an in-house Bilkent University recording, and the balance between orchestra and piano is too slanted towards the keyboard. In a packed catalogue the Ravel are for the legion of Biret fans, but the Saint-Saens is more readily recommendable.

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