Interview 20 Int Piano
August 2003
Idil Biret

Marguerite Long called her ‘La petite muse’. Wilhelm Kempff called her ‘my dearest pupil’ and ‘my little colleague’. More recently, Gramophone has hailed her as ‘one of the finest exponents of Chopin’s concertos in the world today’ while the Boston Globe declared, ‘She is a decisive and unequivocal pianist with a huge, ringing, deep-belled tone’. She has a massive repertoire including everything from Beethoven and Chopin to Ligeti and Boulez and her acclaimed recordings number more than 70. A former child prodigy, her talent has remained prodigious all her life.

Idil Biret has never let any of it go to her head. Meeting her in a central London café, I discover that she is a vivid, warm and vastly intelligent woman, with the peculiarly youthful quality that comes to those whose permanently inquiring minds keep them living fully in the present.

She was born in Ankara, where by the age of two-and-a-half she was surprising her parents by recognising melodies and picking them out at the piano. ‘I didn’t realise what I was doing, because it was automatic. I was imitating my mother – I heard her playing all the time at home. My grandmother also used to play; she would improvise at the piano and composed a few smallish works.’ Her mother’s family, though not professionally involved in music, were all keen amateurs. ‘I had an uncle who taught sociology at the university; every week he would meet with some colleagues and play chamber music. My father was the managing director of a sugar factory, but he adored music and played the violin, though not too well. My mother was playing Beethoven and Mozart sonatas and Bach preludes – she said she was not good enough to play the fugues!’

Turkey’s musical life had benefited hugely from the influx of German refugees during the Nazi era and World War II. ‘There were professors in every area of the university, and there were some good musicians and some excellent producers – for instance, Carl Ebert lived in Turkey for a time.’ Biret recalls that ‘the orchestra gave concerts every Saturday and the President of the Republic, Ismet Inönü, would attend every one and sit in the first row. He himself used to play the cello. It was a wonderful musical ambience. The Austrian conductor of the orchestra was a great admirer of Bruckner, so they played all the Bruckner symphonies. In France Bruckner wasn’t so popular in those years, so the Bruckner symphonies were probably performed complete in Turkey earlier than in France! When my mother was a young girl in Istanbul in the 1930s, she heard all the great artists, like Emil von Sauer and Alfred Cortot, who used to tour there frequently.’

The child Idil astonished every musician who heard her play. When she was about five she played to the Hungarian violinist Karl Berger, who asked her where she had learned a particular Bach Invention. ‘On the train,’ she told him. Berger listened to her with tears in his eyes; he soon declared her ‘a genius’ and recommended that she should be sent to the finest pedagogue in the world. Her first teacher was Mithat Fenman, who had been a student of Cortot; therefore Paris seemed the natural destination. Professor Lazar Levy agreed to assist her education in the Paris Conservatoire: the family moved there when Idil was seven. Lucette Descaves took her into her class with special permission from the Ministry of Education, as officially students could not join the Conservatoire before the age of ten.

Considerable excitement surrounded the arrival of the little prodigy and Idil was soon playing to some of the greatest musicians of the day. She remembers Marguerite Long vividly: ‘Of course she was an extraordinary personality. She was very elegant and her classes took place in what I would call, for those days, a “feminine” atmosphere: people would be coming and going and it was rather society-oriented. But she had a profound knowledge and wrote some interesting things. It was rather like being received by the queen! I played to her several times, and she used to call me “La petite muse” – the little muse.’

Her principal teacher was Jean Doyen: ‘I keep on using the word “extraordinary” – but I have to say extraordinary here, because he would sit there and say, “Oh yes, you play this work, let me see…” and then he would play the whole work through, then remark: “I hadn’t played this work for 40 years.” He had a wonderful, refined way of playing and a fantastic technique. In those days, it was completely out of fashion to play arrangements and paraphrases, but every Sunday at 3pm he used to have a radio broadcast and he would play these things, by people like Thalberg. Everyone used to say, he’s out of his mind, why does he play this rubbish? But they were quite marvellous!’

Nadia Boulanger’s teaching also made a huge impression. ‘She was a completely different personality. She was severely dressed, with flat shoes, her hair in a bun. As a teacher, she wouldn’t give you a recipe. If you were doing harmony or counterpoint with her she’d say: “Bring me that next week.” If you said that you didn’t know how to do it, she would tell you: “You will find it by yourself.” This was how she developed personality in her students. At the piano, we would sometimes work for a whole hour on just one bar: it was her way of showing that all the details are important.

‘She also used to organise parties and dinners. The most interesting dinners I have ever attended were at her house, because everybody came and you would be seated next to someone like Marc Chagall and the conversation was incredible! After a concert she would give a dinner for the performer and invite 40 people to meet him or her. And every Wednesday after her class, she would hold a sort of salon where everybody could go and meet her. It was wonderful, this hospitality; I think it was very civilised. It’s a pity these things are lost today, because you need to meet people. These days we are isolated more and more in front of the computer. Of course there are economic reasons why you cannot have these parties now, but just to meet, to talk to each other, that’s very important.’

Biret met Wilhelm Kempff even before Boulanger, when she was seven, and he was to become her real mentor. ‘I played for him, and when he came to Paris he would see me; he was very interested in my development. So when I was about ten he said: “It’s time you should perform, so we will play together.” ‘ Boulanger was not in favour of Idil playing important concerts so young, so when in February 1953 Kempff and his ‘little colleague’ performed the Mozart Concerto for Two Pianos together at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, it was the most significant performance she had yet given – without quite understanding the honour of playing in this venue alongside Kempff himself. ‘I found it quite natural because I used to play for him – it was quite normal. Now I realise what it meant!’

What sort of person was Kempff? ‘He was wonderful. He was a real paterfamilias – that’s a side of him which is not so much known. He had seven children; the youngest daughter was about my age. He was severe, but also very natural, witty and cultured. He had a profound knowledge of all the Greek and Latin cultures; he could even speak Latin. Out of the blue he’d give you some Greek verses to make you feel a rhythm. Or he would give you an example from mythology that was wonderful. And the pedalling was incredible. I entirely learned pedalling with Kempff. He had a way of making a tremolo with the pedal; it created a magical sonority. Kempff also, like Cortot, had an incredible sound; among 50 pianists, if you heard Kempff you’d recognise him because his style was so distinctive. All these personalities – it was a different world. They were much more connected to the nineteenth century with their values and their morals. It was a different time.’ Among Biret’s recordings is an inspiring disc of transcriptions by Kempff, mainly of pieces by Bach – an affectionate tribute that helps to keep his legacy alive.

One of the people to whom Kempff introduced the child Idil was Liszt’s granddaughter, Madame de Prevot, who took her to play to Alfred Cortot. Later, after graduating from the Conservatoire, she studied privately with him for two years; by this time he was in his eighties and virtually blind. ‘He wore very thick glasses which intensified the extraordinary look he had in his eyes – the look of a medium. As soon as he played the piano, the sound that came out of it was mesmerising, like a cello. He was very severe, a very tough teacher, but I admired him immensely.’ Did she take on any of his ideas on how to produce this special sound? ‘I have tried to. I thought as I was watching him that he used a lot of upper arm weight, so I decided that what I could do was weight lifting to get this sort of sound. I am double jointed, so there was no problem for me to do this. I did a lot of weight lifting and it helped!’

Since her first major tour – a two-month trip to Russia in 1960 – Biret’s career has taken her to almost every corner of the globe, alongside which she has enjoyed a happy marriage and family life. Her recordings, most recently for Naxos, range from Beethoven’s symphonies in the arrangements by Liszt to her most recent release, the Ligeti Etudes. She has recorded the complete works of Chopin and many Chopin experts regard her as a favourite interpreter. But, intriguingly, Chopin was not an early favourite with her. ‘Chopin was the first composer I heard as a child, being played by some wonderful amateurs. But they would do all the wrong things, making out of Chopin someone who was sentimental and too sweet. I had a total antipathy to the music for some years. Nadia Boulanger was very limited in her choice of repertoire: only Bach, Mozart, some Beethoven and Schubert were important, and she recognised the qualities of composers like Liszt and Schumann. But for her, perfection meant Chopin. So I was a little puzzled by that. Then I heard a totally different interpretation of Chopin – in the recordings of Rachmaninoff. I was shocked – I didn’t know it could be played this way. Perfection is the right word! Later I started to play a lot of Scriabin and discovered that Chopin was one of his most important influences. Finally I started to play Chopin and to understand that he’s not a real Romantic. Schumann is much more Romantic – he is the spirit of Romanticism – but Chopin is pure in the highest and noblest sense. There’s a fantastical element in his work and it’s much more tense and violent than one thinks; even in the salon pieces, especially the later works, there’s so much bitterness. Chopin never “makes conversation”!’

Biret’s repertoire stayed intensely traditional until she was about 17. ‘Then I went to Germany and there met Lico Amar who used to be the first violin of the Amar-Hindemith Quartet. In the war he was in Ankara and he had known me since my childhood. He was the first to tell me you must play contemporary music. Boulanger also told me that; because you have to be able to solve all the problems, not only play what you play; when you have a score in front of you, you have to understand it immediately. And then I was asked to make some recordings; first I did Schumann and Brahms, but later I played Prokofiev’s Seventh Sonata which in those days was being a little contemporary as he only died in 1953.’ Bartók was another favourite and at the instigation of the festival director Claude Samuel, she soon branched out into Boulez.

Her most recent foray into the contemporary field is the Ligeti etudes, which she has just recorded for Naxos. ‘The way they are written is fascinating, because there could be another, easier way to write them – but then you wouldn’t get the feeling of so much originality. For instance, a highly original etude is Touches bloquées. You hold the finger on certain notes and then you have to play all the other notes; when you come to the blocked note you can’t play it. This had never been done before. I play also Ligeti’s Etudes for Player Piano – they are supposed to be played by a machine, but it is written in the score that if you practise enough then a human can play them. But it’s terrifying: for instance, you have to cross the hands and then play in double notes… It’s as good as weight lifting!’

It sounds almost impossible, technically – so what is the essence, for Biret, of a good technique? ‘Everyone is built differently, so you have to know first what are your possibilities and your frontiers, and what you want to hear. In a way, you can never have enough technique, because technique is like spelling or the alphabet. If you don’t know how to spell you wouldn’t be able to write a novel, unless you dictate it to someone. And you have to develop your sound imagination. There are hundreds of things, but for a beginning, the technique must allow you to play everything with great ease; a lot of notes shouldn’t be any problem. I improvise a lot, in different styles – here the idea in my mind should be followed at once by my fingers. For example, I must be able to play double notes and they have to be legato. It’s a way of life.

‘Once you have that, then you have to understand really what the composer meant and that often means to read between the lines, to put the right pedalling, to listen, to see the structure. Harmonically a piece is based in a certain system; you have to know how the harmonies develop and what is their origin. It’s a very long process and you learn something more every day. I always say it’s like the staircase in the 1001 Nights – every time you climb one step, you will see a different view.’

Despite everyone’s protestations of equality, it’s impossible not to think that even now solo careers in music are harder for women than for men – the sheer numbers, or lack of them, seem testimony to this. ‘For years I didn’t realise that, because as a child I was always taught that there was no difference,’ Biret says. ‘Especially in my generation in Turkey, women had the possibility to do anything. They had the vote very early and they could follow any career they wanted to. But later in Paris, Nadia Boulanger sometimes puzzled me because she would look at me with a sad expression and say “It’s a pity.” In those days you could only ask your teacher questions about music, but finally I had to ask her what she meant. She said: “It’s because you are a woman, so you are never going to be able to do certain things. There will always be problems; you won’t have the strength to play certain works.” I was rather stunned and very annoyed – and I decided: “I’ll just show her!” I think she did it absolutely on purpose, because she knew I was going to want to prove just the opposite!

‘I think we have to be human beings first of all, and create something together, not think that one is better than the other. When someone comes and says, “You play like a man,” it’s terrible! Is it supposed to be the greatest compliment? But if you say to a gentleman pianist, “You play like a woman,” he would be offended! I don’t want to play like a man – I want to play the music. Let’s be human. Let’s be complimentary. Let’s collaborate and forget about this nonsense.’

Unlike many of today’s leading soloists, Biret is a frequent member of competition juries and says that she enjoys them. “First, it’s because I like to listen to music and to new things. In competitions you meet some very interesting young people with very fresh and interesting ideas. I learn quite a lot! You can learn from the quality as well as from the mistakes. It’s wonderful; it’s a great way to improve yourself and to enjoy music.’ Yet so many pianists find competitions ghastly. ‘You must think of competitions not in terms of competitiveness! There can be good sides to it if you hear something that gives you new inspiration. I bought a book about Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony and among other things I read that Tchaikovsky had said that if Wagner didn’t exist, he wouldn’t have composed anything. He didn’t like Wagner, but he knew it was important to listen. I like to listen; you have to feed your sound imagination all the time. You have to be open to everything, you have to see what is happening in the world and see how things were when a piece was composed; all these things will help you, give you some clue to understand the music better.’

Today Biret, who lives in Brussels, is as busy as ever. This July Naxos is releasing her new recording of Stravinsky’s own piano arrangement of The Firebird; she is also working her way steadily through the complete Beethoven Sonatas, which should be complete next year. Also, collectors will be interested to hear that the recordings of contemporary music that she made in the 1970s for the Atlantic/Finnadar label are being released on CD for the first time, in France, including works by Bartók, Berg, Boucourechliev, Myaskovsky, Prokofiev, Ravel and Webern, among others – the boxed set is also to include a disc of recordings she made for Radio France in 1949 and 1953. Forthcoming concerts will take her everywhere from Finland and France to Turkey and a projected tour of Japan. You can find more information about her at her website, (in English, German and Turkish). Biret may be one of the most important links today to the world of Cortot, Boulanger and Kempff – but she always has something new to say.

[Idil Biret’s new complete recording of Stravinsky’s The Firebird can be found on Naxos 8.555999].