Thinking through the keys
Turkish pianist Idil Biret is one of the most respected artists on the super-budget Naxos label. Bill Newman talks to her about her early recollections, her training, her recordings and her aspirations.
In my quest for outstanding interpretations on record I recently came across a series of CDs on the super-budget Naxos label featuring Idil Biret in piano music by Brahms, Chopin, Rachmaninov and Saint-Saens – original and stimulating readings which really made me sit up and listen. She was born in Ankara, Turkey and studied under Cortot, Kempff and Nadia Boulanger. At her fingertips she has a phenomenal repertoire of over 300 solo pieces, nearly 120 concertos and almost the same number of chamber works. She rarely plays here, preferring to tour Europe and has recorded classic, romantic and modern repertoire for several companies and is also well-known as an adjudicator in international competitions.
So, when and how did she begin piano lessons? “My mother was a good amateur pianist and from the age of 3 I simply copied her. We played chamber music and I got to know Beethoven very well; but my first formal lessons were with a Turkish pianist (Mithat Fenmen) who had studied with Cortot. I was thought to be quite a prodigy; people who would come to hear me and my teacher Fenmen said I should go to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger, but may father, who was Commercial Director of the Turkish State Sugar Monopoly in Ankara, said I was too young to travel alone. He very bravely gave up his job to accompany me and with the aid of a scholarship off we went to Paris when I was just 7 years old. Mlle Boulanger loved children but made absolutely no concessions to them. She would write out a line of music for me to sight read, but having given me just one look she would put her hand over some of the bars to teach me to memorize quickly. Sometimes I would cheat, filling the gaps with improvisations, but she soon discovered what I was up to! She wanted us all to be honest and told us a story from her own schooldays. Her mother had asked her how she was doing and Nadia glibly reported that her teacher was pleased and that everything ‘came easily’ to her. Maman was not impressed. ‘But you must struggle’, she said ‘otherwise you will never know how well you CAN do.’ I also studied composition from the age of 7 to 17 – lots of fugues, counterpoint and harmony.”
I remembered she made a close study of the original full scores of the Beethoven Symphonies before performing and recording the Liszt transcriptions. “Of course. From 11 years of age I attended a class called “Piano Accompaniment” in which great chunks of Wagner were placed before us for just 2 minutes and then we had to play them – quite inhuman of course – but they were followed by complex scores by people like Stravinsky and Prokofiev! We were required to play as clearly as possible, which meant razor-sharp decisions on which parts should be given prominence. It was all very good ‘ecole’ training. Although I was very young to enroll at the Conservatoire, I soon progressed and then went into Mademoiselle’s piano class to be coached by her assistants until I eventually began studies with Jean Doyen, who in the 1920s had been a pupil of Marguerite Long. He would listen and exclaim ‘I used to play that’, and give us a performance. The to amuse us he would dash off operatic transcriptions from his old concert repertoire.”
She is still fascinated by the pianists of the past especially Vladimir de Pachmann, “eccentric but wonderful! – I love his Chopin; he allows just the right degree of sound to come through “, and the singing qualities and technical expertise of Rachmaninov and Moiseiwitsch – all significantly in stark contrast to the rather puritanical attitude to playing nowadays. What equipment did a pianist need to achieve the best results? “Breathing is the secret. In Paris I noticed many players concentrating on finger action
(as Chopin did) without involving the wrist, endlessly trying to perfect ease of movement. It is important to establish both strong and weak points and to do that you must understand your own body potential perfectly.” I asked whether she was ever satisfied with a performance. This time the answer did not surprise me: “Never, really. I always think of new ways to try and find the best answers. When I listen to my records, sometimes they’re not so bad as I thought, sometimes I would like to record everything again – and that can quickly become an incessant, repetitive process.”
Biret plans recording well ahead of her concert itinerary, often makes 2-3 discs a month then has time to prepare for the next batch. Favouring long takes, she gives special attention to spontaneity, accenting, linear flow, always referring back to urtext editions. We had a long talk about the true meaning of rubato supported by a strong rhythmic bass line which was such a strong feature of the playing of both Chopin and Rachmaninov. Right from the start it was a controversial technique; critics claimed that Chopin could never play in strict tempo. Idil’s opinions on this among other things will form the liner notes on her forthcoming releases of Chopin and Rachmaninov.
I was especially interested to hear of her studies with Cortot. “Nadia Boulanger suggested it after I left the Conservatoire and I worked two years with him just before he died.” We talked about his late concerts, the memory lapses, the arthritis in his hands and, above all, the profound concentration that brought his performing skills back by sheer will power. “At our lessons he always wore heavy, thick glasses over those profound, dark eyes and at times his extreme concentration seemed to take him right out of himself. Once I played
Some Chopin and Schumann, but he asked for Bach and I chose one of the English Suites. I remember he told me to go and watch Serge Lifar to understand the meaning of dance; I had to ‘feel’ the way the music should sound. It was also Cortot who taught me how to phrase different rhythms in the Mazurka.”
“Wilhelm Kempff came late into my life. Although we had played together the Mozart Concerto for two pianos when I was eleven years old, he did not wish to teach me until I had left the Conservatoire. I eventually went to his house in Munich (in 1958) for a series of sessions on set pieces he had chosen. It was funny because at the same time I had to do fugue and counterpoint exercises for Mlle Boulanger. I used to post these in the morning and go straight on to Kempff – the discipline did me much good although I did not realize it then. Kempff was very organized and strict teacher insisting I observe all the dynamic and tempo markings as written and not improvise just for effect; to him the arc of musical line was all important. I had to play a Beethoven Sonata; then he would tell me what was wrong and make recommendations. Should I write them down? ‘No’, he replied’ ‘that is not necessary; you will only remember afterwards what is most important.’ He wanted me to absorb selectively – I did not even have to play like him. Sometimes he had no wish to play and I had to make up my own mind. This was all a totally different approach for me.”
With such a varied career performing, recording and adjudicating plus giving the occasional master class, had she ever tried composing? “Some time ago, but I gave up as I did not have anything very original to say. Like most pianists I occasionally like to compose small pieces to play myself that will answer some musical query.” How does she view modern music? “Every composer has a duty to express himself as clearly as possible. For example the Boulez Sonata No.2 and the Liszt Sonata are not too far apart pianistically – I have even included them in the same program. Yet I feel there is a danger that you may lose sight of familiar roots by playing a lot of twentieth century music. You have to obey the rules if you are a musician and I am worried by some composers who give a synthetic overlay to their compositions, with a lot of unnecessary accents and padding.”
I wondered about Turkish composers; who does she find to be the most significant. “Saygun is interesting. He wrote (among others) twelve Preludes and two Concertos for Piano. When Bartok came to Turkey in 1936 he and Saygun collected about 400 folk tunes. Bartok (later) wrote a charming letter saying he wanted to do some teaching in Turkey. Even more interesting perhaps was Kempff’s visit nine years earlier (1927) to give a concert in Ankara. He was then teaching at the Stuttgart Conservatoire and after the performance Kemal Ataturk invited him to his residence and debated with him the future of polyphonic music in Turkey. It lasted until the small hours! Kempff suggested
they invite Furtwangler to Turkey. Furtwangler declined, saying he was tied to his job in Germany, but sent Hindemith instead who founded the Ankara Conservatoire. Amar, who played in Hindemith’s Quartet came too and stayed until 1958, but Hindemith left in 1936 and (later) went to Yale University in America. Carl Ebert also came to Ankara and in 1942 produced an opera.”
Of all the conductors she has worked with, Biret expressed great fondness for Pierre Monteux. “He was so quiet and modest and I was very young. He told me there was nothing to worry about and on the stage the more slowly I walked the longer would be the applause! I was also impressed with the famous German conductor Hermann Scherchen. I had to learn Stravinsky’s Capricio for concerts in Brussels and I was rather nervous having been warned by a critic to expect the worst. The piece before mine was a Brandenburg Concerto and I arrived at the rehearsal to find Scherchen shouting at a musician who was literally shaking in his seat. Oh no! I thought, what’s going to happen to me? Anyhow, I went on and was introduced to the orchestra, but from the way Scherchen looked at me it was clear he thought me far too young. The Capriccio is a work in which the piano merges into the orchestral texture and I played it that way. Scherchen tried to stop me accusing me of playing a wrong note. I maintained that I had not, so he checked my score. After a heart-stopping pause he said ‘You are right!’ and smiled. From that moment we became firm friends. We played together five times and he was always utterly charming.” She also loved working with Boult and Sargent and is most anxious to renew her acquaintance with Louis Fremaux who last worked with her in Australia.
We had great fun comparing pianists. Generally we shared the same opinion, particularly on the slowness of the Schubert sonatas as performed by Richter. This, she told me had had a disastrous aftermath in Paris some years ago where Richter had already cancelled twice and everyone was geared up for his recital. “When he started the Schubert I suddenly felt all the other pianists that season had played far too fast, so I decided to slow down myself. But I was not really sure about what I was doing and gradually lost contact with the music. It took six months to get back to normal!”
I mentioned my concern over the suitability of certain recording locations. Her Naxos recordings of the two Chopin Concertos, for example, were made at Kosice in the winter where, as often it happens in East European buildings, the acoustics are cavernous. In addition, there is a disconcerting difference in sound between those recordings and the fillers which were made in the summer and are much more acceptable. “Yes, it is a very large hall and sounds fine with a full audience, but when empty the reverberation is very strong – particularly in November! This is a pity because I got on very well with the orchestra and conductor there.”
Her many fans can certainly look forward to a wealth of exciting new releases. Was she planning to record the Scriabin Sonatas? “Maybe later.” Would she re-record the Liszt transcription of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique as her LP recording had an unattractive, tight piano tone? “Yes, I was offered a rather small piano in a small studio. Next time I will play on a large concert grand!” She also hopes to record selected Liszt transcriptions of the Beethoven Symphonies for Naxos. I remember the original set well! Were all the notes she played in the piano part? “Yes, they are all there, but you have to suggest the sound of the orchestra by lengthening certain notes while amplifying or shading other passages. It is all very complicated. I had just twenty recording days to complete the nine symphonies. Now I must study the scores again and this time maybe I’ll come up with something different. It will be a great challenge and I must admit I do enjoy that!”
Photo: Idil Biret with Wilhelm Kempff at the piano / Caption: “Idil Biret, aged 12, practicing under the watchful eye of the great German pianist Wilhelm Kempff. This photograph was taken in Paris and although the two had played Mozart together, Kempff did not wish to coach his young pupil until she had left the Paris Conservatoire.”
Photo: Biret and Kempff in Ammerland, Munich in 1958 and a hand written note signed by Kempff / Caption: “The hand writing features a fragment of Bach’s G minor Fugue (BWV542) and an inscription to the young pianist which reads, roughly translated: ‘To my dear Idil, my genius pupil, in remembrance of the days in Ammerland’. Kempff wanted her to selectively absorb interpretational influences.”
by Bill Newman