When this massive Beethoven/Biret series is issued in full, it will contain 19CDs housing the complete sonatas, piano concertos, the Choral Symphony and the symphonies (in Liszt's transcriptions). It will be a worthwhile monument to keyboard aficionados and Beethoven mavens, for Biret (b. 1941) is one of the finest interpreters of the composer's works of her generation, as these discs certainly attest.
The symphonies here were recorded in 1985-86, and the performances overall are quite excellent. Many have questioned the need to ever hear these great works on the piano, even if Liszt's transcriptions are well crafted and about as fine a keyboard realization as one could hope for. Well, the symphonies obviously sound better in their native orchestral dressing, but if a listener desires to hear them in a different way, Liszt's reduction is excellent and Biret's interpretations are totally convincing. The First Symphony brims with subtleties of phrasing, from the inquisitive opening chords to the rambunctious humor of the Menuetto to the all-conquering joy of the finale. Biret's reading of the Second is similarly convincing, and she catches the greater depth of the work, expanding the music's sense of scope and subtlety, imparting an almost orchestral air to the proceedings. The sound in both works is excellent, fully competitive with the best piano recordings of today.
The sonatas here were recorded in 2001-02. The first disc here features the Sonatas Nos. 1 & 2 (Op. 2/1 & 2), and 19 & 20 (Op. 49/1 & 2), which are all early works, despite the numbering of the latter two. They were written roughly in the period 1793-97. Biret catches their youthful humor and joy, as well as their darker moments. Volume 2 of the sonatas features Nos. 3 (Op. 2/3), 5 (Op. 10/1) and 18 (Op. 31/3). Again, Biret finds Beethoven youthful side with a deft sense in the Third. #5 is well played, too, but #18, with its contrasts of the ponderous and the playful in the first movement, is the real gem here. I love this sonata and Biret's performance is about as fine a one as I've heard. The sound on both sonata discs is vivid and powerful.
The Concertos here are newly recorded (2008) and competitive with many of the better pairings of Nos. 1 & 2 available. The only possible drawback is the playing of the Bilkent Symphony Orchestra. As an ensemble they play well, play with accuracy and spirit. But the strings can sound a bit scrawny, and the colors a bit washed out, with woodwinds often sounding a bit too forward, perhaps a misstep by the sound engineers. In any event, Biret's performances are excellent and full of deft insights throughout. She generally plays with a fairly muscular tone but can soften on a dime to a delicate pianissimo. Polish maestro Wit leads the ensemble with a sure hand and the sound is close and vivid in both concertos, with perhaps a bit too much reverberation.
All in all, these four discs augur an excellent introduction to what will probably be regarded as one of the more important Beethoven keyboard projects of the early-21st century. Recommended.
Copyright © 2009, Robert Cummings