In my initial overview of this series, I covered the first two volumes of the sonatas [respectively, Nos. 1, 2, 19 & 20 (8.571251) and Nos. 3, 5 & 18 (8.571254)] and the first volumes of the concertos [Nos. 1 & 2 (8.571253)] and the symphonies [Nos. 1 & 2 (8.571252)]. All performances were fine.
As I mentioned in that review, the concertos in this series are newly recorded (2008), while the other works were previously issued. These three sonatas were recorded in May, 1994 and the symphonies in July, 1985. To describe Biret's approach to Liszt's transcriptions of the symphonies, I think it's fair to say that her adagios and andantes tend to be slower than usual, while her allegros, if not up to consensus speeds, are generally spirited. She probes deep in the slower movements and slower moments: try her opening in the Fourth, where there is a heightened sense of mystery, and her second movement, which features a lovely lyrical flow at the expense of underlying momentum.
Biret's Fifth features a first movement tempo that goes contrary to her generally lively allegros: here she is weighty and dark, especially in her treatment of the famous opening motto, which takes on an ominous character. The second movement, at 14:08, is definitely on the slow side, but all is darkly atmospheric, almost as if this music is a close cousin to the funeral march in the Eroica. For as slow as her tempo is here (which I doubt would ever work in an orchestral performance), it is quite compelling, with the big brass proclamations sounding glorious and triumphant on the piano and providing brilliant contrast to the otherwise dark mood.
Biret's third movement tends toward the epic, while her finale is triumphant and festive. Overall, she gives the listener more probing, less driven accounts of these symphonies. Everything is well thought out to the tiniest detail and Biret's technique is fully up to the Lisztian demands. The sound is close and clear.
If Biret's symphonies are a bit less lively than what one might expect, her sonatas brim with life and vitality. The 7th features a perky opening Presto, an infectious, bouncy Menuetto and a lively, playful finale. The second movement Largo is appropriately brooding and intense. All in all, a fine performance.
The famous Waldstein Sonata gets a splendid reading here. The first movement is thrilling and dramatic, and the finale gloriously triumphant. There is an obvious mistake at 2:25 in the finale, but I admire Biret for leaving it in: why do a retake when the performance is so utterly compelling?
The short #25 sparkles with energy and joy in the outer movements, while the inner Andante finds Biret infusing the landscape with a necessary sense of momentum. All in all, this volume of sonatas, which also features fine sound reproduction, must rank highly on anybody's chart.
That same clarity, attention to detail and deft sense for drama are in evidence in the performance of the concertos. If Alfred Brendel is lean and classical in his several Beethoven cycles, and Schnabel is driven and intense in his, Biret is monumental, dark and probing. In general her tempos, while well within standard ranges, are a bit more relaxed than those of most other pianists. Her dynamics are well judged, but tend to favor fortes more than pianos. Her accents can be strong: try the opening moments of the finale of the 3rd, where she often puts weight into bass notes or punctuates key rhythmic points with extra power. Her first movement is muscular and epic, with judicious pacing and intelligent phrasing.
Biret's 4th is also epic, but has an attractive playfulness in the first movement, which contrasts well with the more serious music: the concerto opens with the same famous motto presented in the Fifth Symphony, but here it is less vehement. The second movement is appropriately dark and the finale joyous and grand. Again, Biret brings out much detail, and phrases the music intelligently throughout. The Bilkent Symphony, comprised of university and professional musicians from Turkey and a dozen other countries, plays well, but is perhaps a tad below the caliber of the front-rank ensembles of Europe and the US. Antoni Wit conducts with a knowing hand, and the sound is vivid and powerful. Biret's cycle of concertos may well go down with the finer recorded efforts, including those of Alfred Brendel.
Copyright © 2009, Robert Cummings