19 march 1986.
There was a buzzing activity in the old church of Saint-Gistoux, 30 kilometers south of Brussels. The diminutive woman who was wearing layer upon layer of sweaters to protect herself from the ice cold interior of the church was striking the keys with almost freezing fingers and the sound of the music of Beethoven’s 2nd Symphony in Liszt’s transcription was reverberating on the old walls. The acoustic was excellent but the cold was unbearable. At 04.20 hrs, when the first lights of the day fell on the church, after nine hours of work the recording of the 2nd Symphony had been finished.
Another step was taken towards the completion of a project which would reverberate around the world.
Idil Biret still shivers when talking about that night: “It was terrible” she says, “I felt that I was slowly freezing as I played. I was dressed as though I were on the ski slopes but my hands were ice cold. We were working at night because it is only then that the street outside is very quiet – an absolute requirement for recording purposes in a church. But the temperature inside was below zero. I started wondering whether I would be able to complete the work I had undertaken”.
In the summer of 1985 when an engineer (Michel Devos), who produced recordings independently for EMI in Belgium, asked her whether she would record two Beethoven Symphonies (Nos.4 and 5) for release in 1986 during the Centennial of Liszt’s death, Idil Biret, the ‘wunderkind’ of classical music in Turkey, had said ‘yes’ immediately.
When the recordings of these Symphonies were greatly liked by the management, EMI had made a statement and an unexpected offer: “A single record would not make a sufficient impact in the market. Something different must be done.” This ‘Something different’ was to record all of the nine symphonies of Beethoven. Idil Biret again said ‘yes’ to this proposal without hesitation.
So, the 2nd Symphony recorded on 19 March was one of the nine in the ‘Complete Symphonies’ project.
By finalizing the recording of a Beethoven symphony in one day, which some other pianists took a year to prepare and record, Biret was showing her strength. The next evening the church was equipped with silent heat reflectors which raised the temperature inside.
Idil Biret thus recorded four symphonies in four consecutive all night sessions (Nos. 2,3,7 and 8). Then started the preparation for recording the most difficult of all, the 9th’ and the 6th symphonies. Idil Biret camped at home not once going out for weeks. 16 hours a day at the piano was the routine during this period.
For the box set to be released in the fall of 1986 the master tapes had to be delivered by May. With superhuman effort Biret completed the work in time. When the tapes were finally ready 120 hours of recording had been made for six LPs of around seven hours duration.
So, this is how the recording of the Beethoven/Liszt transcriptions were realised, which, in a box set of 6 LPs, found their place in the windows of record shops in Vienna, London, Munich, Paris, Brussels and many other cities in Europe at the end of 1986.
The importance of this project was underlined in an article by Peter Cosse in the Fonoforum magazine in Germany where he said: “Biret not only recorded all nine of the symphonies in less than a year but, in a superhuman feat which astounded all those who know about music, she also publicly performed all of them in four recitals at the Montpellier festival in France. To learn and also memorise scores of such length and difficulty in such a short time is a mind-boggling achievement.”