The three sonatas here were recorded in 2001 and thus are relatively new, at least as reissues go. Biret's readings of them, as with the others previously released in this series, are full of spirit and ear-opening insights not usually encountered in most performances. The Appassionata brims with passion and power in the first movement, with serenity and majesty in the ensuing Andante, and with drama and a sense of unavoidable fate in the finale. Biret negotiates every technical challenge with seeming ease and makes her interpretation seem almost definitive.
In the Op. 101 she captures the more congenial character of the piece with restrained dynamics and fewer rhythmic accents. Even the second movement march sounds more jaunty than militaristic, and the somber Adagio that follows comes across as philosophical rather than dark. The finale brings back the brighter mood of the opening movement, though here Biret adds a bit more muscle. A splendid reading!
The Op. 110 is a work of great depth, clearly auguring the profound final sonata. Biret's reading of the first movement exhibits a fine sense for both its majestic character and delicate fabric. But some may find it a bit quirky at times owing to Biret's little hesitations in the descending phrases near the end of the exposition and reprise. Despite these tiny flaws, her first movement is utterly convincing. The remainder of the sonata is just as imposing, with the brief second movement showing infectious colors and the two-part finale moving from reflective regret to utterly transcendent triumph. Excellent sound in all sonatas.
The Beethoven symphonies in Liszt's deft piano arrangements have received some noteworthy performances in the past from Cyprien Katsaris, Naxos' own Konstantin Scherbakov and others. So, performances of them on recording aren't so rare. You'll almost never encounter them in the recital hall, though. With this disc we are near the end of Biret's cycle, which was actually recorded in 1985-86. In her previous issues in this series Biret has tended toward the epic and monumental in her approach. That is much in evidence in her rendering of the Seventh, where tempos are rather slow and fortes powerful. Biret takes 45:53 in this work, where Karajan in his third cycle of the Beethoven symphonies with the Berlin Philharmonic, took less than 33:00! Admittedly, I'm comparing a conductor at one extreme to a pianist at the other, but at least that gives you an idea of what to expect from Biret. She takes the first movement introduction very deliberately, a once common approach to this music by conductors. But it comes across as overly ponderous. She's no doubt alert in pointing up crucial detail here and elsewhere, though, as well as in conveying Beethoven's sense of the monumental. But this symphony is about dance and rhythm, isn't it? Her approach may be valid to many, but it's just a bit heavy-handed for my tastes.
Biret's Eighth is better and closer in spirit to the work's mostly light character. Her tempos are generally well-chosen, if once again, a bit on the slow side. The sound in both symphonies is clear and powerful.
Both these discs can be recommended, but the CD containing the sonatas is clearly the winner here.
Copyright © 2009, Robert Cummings