Idil at Leipziger Gewandhaus in 1985 before the 2nd Bartok concerto under the baton of Thedore Guschlbauer

Idil Biret was due to make her fifth tour of the german Democratic republic in early 1990 with concerts scheduled in Berlin, Dresden, Leipzig, Halle and other cities when unrest started there which resulted in the fall of the Berlin wall, liberation of the peoples of Eastern Europe and reunification of Germany; a landmark period in the history of Europe. A peculiar consequence of this happy event was the end of the series of widely acclaimed concerts Idil Biret gave in east German cities in the 1980s with some of the world’s best orchestras like the Leipzig Gewandhaus, Dresden Staatskapelle, Berliner Radio Symphoniker and in famous halls such as the Semper Oper in Dresden and the Schauspielhaus in Berlin. This is a brief story of the Biret’s career in GDR.

In 1959 Emil Gilels was at the house of Nadia Boulanger in Paris when Idil Biret played Schumann’s Fantasy op.17 for the guests. Gilels who was greatly impressed, afterwards talked with Idil and asked if she would like to play in the Soviet Union. She said yes with great enthusiasm. Sometime later Idil Biret received an invitation from Goskonzert for an eight concert tour of the Soviet union in 1960. Following the great public enthusiasm at the opening concert of the tour at the Great Tchaikovsky Hall in Moscow (the public waited outside the artists entrance; stopped the car Biret was traveling and raised it into the air) Goskonzert doubled the number of concerts in the tour to sixteen and Biret started and illustrious career in the Soviet Union and the countries of eastern Europe. Biret went many times to the Soviet Union giving more than one hundred concerts there over the years. Her success in the Soviet union let to invitations from all over eastern Europe and Biret gave many concerts in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Romania and Bulgaria in the 1960s and 1970s. Interestingly, she did not play in East Germany until 1979 when Biret was invited to the East Berlin festival. Idil’s recital (Schubert Sonata in F minor, Liszt Sonata, Ravel Gaspard de la Nuit, Rachmaninov 6 Moments Musicaux) there on 9 October led to an explosion of enthusiasm with laudatory articles in the press with titles like

Saechsisches Tageblatt “Surprise with Turkish pianist Idil Biret”

Nationalzeitung “With furioso verve: Guest performance of Turkish pianist Idil Biret”

Neues Deutschland “Fascinating recital with virtuoso soloist”

Berliner Zeitung “Idil Biret with inspiring piano recital”

Berliner Zeitung am Abend “A Tarantella as virtuoso conclusion”

Neue Zeit “Impulsivity and sparkling colour”

In the article in Neue Zeit the critic Eckart Schwinger said, “Nur eine Stunde nach Igor Oistrachs Violinabend begegnete uns im Apollo-Saal erstmals die tuerkische Klaviervirtuosin Idil Biret, die hervorragende Lehrmeister, Musizierpartner und Auszeichnungen aufzuweisen hat. Das Programm umfasste ausschliesslich Klavierwerke staerksten Kalibers. Werke, die technisch, gestalterisch und geistig aeusserstes fordern, von der tuerkischen Klavierspielerin aber ganz und gar muehelos, ohne irgendwelche Verschleisserscheinungen hingesetzt wurden. Allein die Sicherheit und Steigerungskraft sind staunenswert. Idil Biret erwies sich dabei nicht als ein ausgesprochen lyrisches Klaviernaturell dem besondere Klangsinnlichkeit eignete, nicht gerade als eine Pianistin glueckhafter Aufschwuenge und klanglicher Ueberredungskuenste, sondern als eine ausserordentlich energievolle Virtuosin, die extreme Schwierigkeiten, extreme Tempi gelassen meistert, ohne sich und das Publikum ins Schwitzen zu bringen, die durch eiserne Disziplin und Perfektion, durch eine geradezu glasklare Klanggebung aufhorchen lasst. Dessen ungeachtet: eine nicht alltaegliche Begegnung.”

Idil Biret was immediately invited by Mr. Ulbricht the director of the government concert agency in Berlin for a GDR tour in 1981 with appearances in Dresden, Magdeburg, Zwickau and other cities playing recitals and concerts (Liszt Concerto no.1 and Rachmaninov Concerto no.3). The further success of these concerts made Mr. Ulbricht decide to organize another tour for Biret in 1982 this time including a concert with one of the oldest and best orchestras of GDR and the world, Dresdner Staatkapelle (Symphony) where she played Beethoven’s 2nd Concerto.

The next tour, in 1985, was the best that could be organized in GDR for any artist. It included concerts with the Leipzig Gewandhaus (Bartok 2nd Concerto – please see “Idil Biret music archives” for complete MP3 files), Dresdner Staatskapelle (Rachmaninov Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini), Berlin Radio Symphony (Rachmaninov Rhapsody, presented below) and recitals at the Schauspielhaus in Berlin, at the newly opened Semper Oper in Dresden and in Halle, the city of Haendel.

The reception she received during this tour was outstanding. The writer of these lines was present at the Berlin concert where after a single 45 minute rehearsal she played Rachmaninov’s Paganini Rhapsody in the Schauspielhaus to a capacity audience with the Berlin Radio Orchestra. The quality of orchestral playing and the precision conducting of Heinz Rogner were exemplary producing an astonishingly beautiful supercharged performance with Biret.

The same was true of the Leipzig Gewandhaus and Dresdner Staatskapelle concerts which can be witnessed in the recordings of some of her performances with all these orchestras in the Biret archives. With the exception of the Berlin Philharmonic, no orchestra in West Germany at the time could match the perfection reached by these GDR orchestras in the hands of outstanding conductors most of them little known in the western world and Biret greatly enjoyed playing with them and gave inspired performances at both the orchestral concerts and recitals. Following the Semper Oper recital wrote the Sachsisches Zeitung, with the title “Tuerkische Pianistin in Dresden begeistert gefeiert”, “Idil Biret bezauberte mit ihrer Perfektion und virtuosen Gestaltungskraft. Begeistert wurde sie gefeiert. Prokofjews Tokkata war der Dank fuer den stuermisch gespendeten Beifall”.

After the performance of the Bartok 2nd Concerto the Leipziger Volkszeitung wrote “Theodore Guschlbauer und Idil Biret loesten im 7. Gewandhauskonzert starken Beifall aus. Vitalitat, Souveraenitat und Ueberzeugunskraft der tuerkischen Kuenstlerin faszinierten an beiden Abenden und weckten Beifallsstuerme.”

Similar articles appeared in the press all over the GDR.

The DDR Konzertagentur (GDR government concert agency) wrote to Biret in 1988 proposing to organize another tour in early 1990. Over ten performances were programmed and this was expected to produce another outstanding series of recitals and concerts with the great orchestras. But then the series of events we all know very well started. East Germans first crossed through the borders of other east European countries to the west. Demonstrations gathered pace all over the GDR and Berlin started losing control which terminated finally with the fall of the wall in Berlin and unification of Germany. These developments were almost mirrored in messages being sent almost daily by Mr. Ulbricht of the DDR Konzertagentur.

He started canceling concerts of the tour. Leipzig Gewandhaus went, then Dresdner Staatskapelle followed by others and finally the concerts in Berlin. Orchestras were going out of the sphere of influence of the concert agency one by one. Finally, when only five concerts remained in the minor cities, Biret wrote to Herrn Ulbricht thanking him for the many years of outstanding support and asked for the cancellation of the tour. This was duly accepted. So, came to an end the illustrious career of Idil Biret in the now eastern part of Germany. The fall of the Berlin wall, a most fortunate event for mankind had produced a most unfortunate result for Idil Biret.

From 1990 onwards the western concert agents, major record labels, conductors under contract to these labels and the “stars” in their employ invaded the eastern part of Germany and dominated artistic activity there as they do elsewhere in other parts Germany and of the world. Things were not the same as before and Idil Biret was never again invited to perform in the cities of Germany’s east.

This would be remarkable when one considers the reputation she made in those cities, but, not so when one knows the workings of the forces controlling the classical music industry and their attitude to Idil Biret. Happily though, her recordings can be found all over Germany thanks to the efficient distribution of Naxos. Music lovers can continue to listen to Biret’s recorded performances of the music of Brahms, Beethoven, Schumann, Chopin, Rachmaninov, Boulez, Ligeti and others on CD and in German Radio transmissions even though being denied the possibility to hear her in concerts.


The extraordinary thing about GDR and other east European countries before 1990 was the almost total absence of the western major record labels and their influence on the concert organizers and orchestras. Thus, local careers in these countries could still be made on the basis of the quality of a musician’s performance and the public’s reaction to it; not on the back of a recording contract and all the publicity and marketing activity driven by a major label that goes with it. The division of the world into two spheres of influence had maintained the 19th century music traditions in the east of Europe for nearly fifty years. Whatever the negative aspects, this allowed Biret to make a career in GDR, Soviet Union and other countries there between 1960-1990 the way careers ought to be made – by the quality and force of her public performances.

Recently Mme Moguilevska an eminent Russian piano teacher and the mother of the pianist Eugene Moguilevsy (winner of the Reine Elisabeth Competition in Belgium) met Idil Biret for the first time in over thirty years. She embraced Idil and said, “I remember your performance of the Brahms D Minor Concerto in Odessa. Since then you have always been the greatest for me”.

Such was her reputation there (see separately the writing on Biret’s career in the Soviet Union, which will be published here soon).

© Sefik Yuksel

Brussels, 15th February 2003