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Jed Distler, March 2011

David Hurwitz may have scared readers away from Boulez’s piano music when he reviewed Paavali Jumppanen’s recording of the Three Sonatas. Yet contrary to my colleague’s well reasoned rejection of the 1948 Second Sonata as an “obsolete, emotionally sterile essay”, here I find the composer’s rigorous serial idiom full of rhythmic vibrancy, tension and release, dramatic textural contrasts, and even lyrical beauty.

I first heard the work as a teenager, when Frederic Rzewski played it at the Port Washington Library in New York. A few years later I purchased its most readily available LP recording, featuring pianist Idil Biret on Atlantic Records’ short-lived subsidiary classical label Finnadar, coupled with Webern’s Op. 27 Variations. Biret has reissued this 1972 release on her own label, along with the Berg Op. 1 sonata.

Rehearing the Boulez after so many years, I’m jolted anew by Biret’s stinging trills, pulverizing chords, and generally fast tempos that sweep the listener along Boulez’s thorny keyboard roads.

…Biret’s three-dimensional clarification of Berg’s complex contrapuntal keyboard writing manages to hold everything together.

Brent Auerbach
American Record Guide, September 2010

The Idil Biret Archive (IBA), issued by Naxos, is working to collect and re-release as many of this pianist’s recordings as possible. The present set of performances come from LPs produced by Finnadar in 1973 and 1975. (Note that the former of these marked the first recording of the Boulez sonata made in the United States.) The sound of these recordings has held up fairly well. A faint, wind-like noise permeates the disc, and occasional ghosting can be heard in long rests; but neither of these effects ever becomes intrusive. What is important is the piano’s sound, which is extremely dry (and hence somewhat percussive) but still full. The instrument’s wide dynamic range is faithfully captured, too, which is important given how hard Biret works to hold our attention via rapid shifts in attack style and volume.

All of her efforts in this respect pay off in spades. Her Berg sonata, arresting from start to finish, is filled to capacity with beautiful moments. To name a few, there is the expansive second theme, which through its heldback tempo seems to gain the ability to float lyrically and slow time’s passage. In the closing area of the exposition in the slow upward march, Biret serves her pianissimo up cool, creating a sonic atmosphere that for some reason calls to mind the image of an eternal, starry night sky. A third must-hear event occurs in the sonata’s last moments, where the music traces out its tortuous path towards the home key. In most pianists’ hands the intelligibility in the music waxes and wanes during this searching process, but in Biret’s there is always clear forward direction.

More of the same logic and beauty can be found in I and III of the Webern, with the latter standing out for its superb chordal work. (Biret has an uncanny ability to voice vertical sonorities so their ring is emphasized.)

It is the Boulez sonata, though, that really returns us to the level of expert musicianship heard in the Berg. The composer fashioned this music to move in fits and starts among contrasting emotional states: so the music is by turns tender, frantic, delicate, rambunctious, and calm. This performance works so well, I think, because of Biret’s natural confidence: she has no fear of the sonata’s technical and interpretive challenges, and thus the music comes out logically and invested with great character. The intelligence and power of these performances must be heard to be believed.

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