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Boulez , Webern, Berg (Archive Edition Vol. 4)
by Dave Lewis 2010

Idil Biret Archive Edition, Vol. 4, contains the Finnadar album that was the best known of the nine that she made; Biret's coupling of Webern "Variations, Op. 27," and Pierre Boulez's "Piano Sonata No. 2." The program is intelligently filled out with the recording of the Alban Berg "Piano Sonata, Op. 1," that was sandwiched in between instrumental works of Schoenberg and Webern on a different Finnadar release. Of course in the 21st century there is no shortage on disc of any of these pieces, but in the 1970s it was still relatively rare to see them on records, and Biret's recording was the first of the Boulez "Piano Sonata No. 2." Back in the '70s the second Boulez sonata was viewed as a work that was barely playable by anyone, let alone a woman as young as Idil Biret; she was only 21 years old when the Finnadar disc hit the shelves for the first time. Out of print for decades, these Biret performances are finally released on her own "Archive Edition" through the generosity of Ahmet Ertegun, who willed Biret's Finnadar Recordings back to her.

The piano used on the Berg in 1974 was not in as good a state of repair as the one used in 1972 for the Webern and Boulez; it clinks, tinks, and hiccups its way through Berg's "Op. 1 Piano Sonata," a work partly defined to many ears by the way Glenn Gould once played it. It is kind of a shame Biret hasn't revisited the Berg sonata in her later recording schedule, as she seems unable here to imbue the piece with the richly romantic style of delivery that suits it best, something that proves a challenge to Biret at age 21 that would not have been an issue at all when she was 41. However, Biret's youthful vigor and precision prove perfect for Anton Webern's typically tiny and aphoristic "Variations, Op. 27"; just listen to the care with which she takes the first movement gestures that combine staccato notes with sustained ones. In Boulez's "Piano Sonata No. 2," Biret's strongest competition -- other than Maurizio Pollini -- is herself, as she recorded the entire cycle of Boulez piano sonatas for Naxos in 1995 on a disc that was widely praised and was the winner of numerous recording awards. Actually, side by side the two interpretations are a draw. What she brings in aggression and raw, nervy energy in 1972 she counterbalances with precision and a clearly defined sense of overall form in 1995, and both approaches work well with this piece.

The 1972 Finnadar Webern/Boulez album was a milestone entry both for Biret and recordings of contemporary music; that alone should be enough to persuade seasoned contemporary music fans to come to this table. However, its reappearance on the market -- no matter how welcome -- should not be taken as a substitute for her later Boulez sonatas recording; that, too, is a milestone, and really both recordings should be appreciated.


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