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JANUARY 15, 2009
The sheer breadth of the Idil Biret Beethoven Edition is, well, breathtaking. Biret, who is now 67, has been playing piano for, astonishingly, 64 years. She is the only pianist ever to have performed all Beethoven's piano sonatas, concertos and symphonies as transcribed by Liszt in public concerts - and the 19 IBA (Idil Biret Archive) CDs of her playing these works will make her the only pianist to have released this entire repertoire in recorded form.

The first four recordings in the series show what the entire sequence is likely to provide: well played, thoughtful recordings with adequate but not exceptional orchestral accompaniment in the concertos and a rather odd arrangement of the material. Nevertheless, Biret's Beethoven cycle will be highly attractive to collectors, not because of its completeness per se but because of the Turkish pianist's fine musicianship and particular attention to the poetic qualities of Beethoven's compositions (Biret is actually best known not for her Beethoven but for her Chopin).

The IBA recordings were made over quite a long time span: Volume 2 dates to 1985-6, Volume 4 to 2001, and Volume 1 to 2002, while Volume 3 was recorded as recently as January 2008. The sonic quality is quite good throughout, though, and Biret's pianism shows no signs of flagging; nor does her handling of Beethoven seem, on the basis of these first four volumes, to have changed radically in more than two decades. She balances the more- and less-intense elements of Beethoven's piano music well, keeping at flowing while letting its poise and ties to the work of earlier composers such as Mozart emerge clearly. In the repertoire on these four CDs, Biret's approach is generally a successful one. All the works here are early Beethoven: Symphony No. 2 and the latest sonata, No. 18, both date only to 1802. So these works have one foot firmly in the 18th century, despite their fair share of Beethovenian touches. It is the delicacy and poise of the 1700s that Biret brings out so effectively: the two short Op. 49 sonatas (numbered 19 and 20 but written in the 1790s), for example, sound distinctly Mozartean.

Yet there are signs here, notably in the Liszt transcription of Symphony No. 3, that Biret has plenty of power when she wants to use it. This is the first Beethoven symphony that hints at the pathos and drama yet to come - especially in its opening and final movements - and Biret propels the music of those movements with considerable strength, yet without losing the light touch that is entirely appropriate elsewhere in the work. However, on balance, her handling of the symphony transcriptions is less successful than her playing of the sonatas. She chooses very deliberate tempos that serve to bring out the details of Liszt's transcriptions but that often make the works drag - the Larghetto of Symphony No. 2 is just excruciatingly slow. And Biret skips almost all repeats, so the movements seem structurally out of balance.

In the concertos, Biret is ably backed by conductor Antoni Wit, but the Bilkent Symphony Orchestra is no more than all right: there is nothing particularly distinguished in its balance or sound. The result is a rather bland accompaniment that puts the spotlight more strongly on Biret's solo work, which is nicely nuanced and has a pleasantly light touch. Tempos are on the slow side but, unlike some of those in the symphony transcriptions, do not drag.

None of these four volumes contains a so-called definitive performance, if indeed such a reading exists; but that is scarcely the point. What is most interesting in this series is not its comprehensiveness in and of itself, but the chance to hear so much of Beethoven's piano music as filtered through the mind and hands of a pianist of outstanding technique and considerable sensitivity. It will be very interesting indeed to see how Biret handles later and much more massive works, such as the Emperor concerto, the Hammerklavier sonata and Liszt's version of Symphony No. 9.









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