UK / July 1998

Precocity and musical talent are not without cost. How often we read about musically gifted children sent to study and then give concerts across the world. So it was with Idil Biret. Her outstanding gifts earned her a scholarship from the Turkish government to study in Paris, where she was duly accompanied by her parents. But for her father this meant a period of no work. “My father resigned from his work, which was very courageous. He didn’t want me to be without a father in Paris. But it was also a risk because you never know with a child prodigy if the development will be harmonious.

With three first prizes, Biret graduated from the Conservatoire at the age of 15, later studying with Alfred Cortot and Wilhelm Kempff. “At the time I studied with Cortot he was quite an elderly gentleman, but he never lost his sense of touch which was magical: a real singing tone. He used to like a perfect legato – the pedal was there to give a plus. As Liszt used to say, ‘the pedal is the soul of the piano’, and it is so important because it gives all the colours. But too much pedal obscures the structures and harmonies of the music. If you listen to great pianists of the past, the pedal is always used sparsely. Kempff taught me how to use one quarter, three-quarters and whole pedal – or sometimes a tremolo effect. You have to be almost like a painter with the pedal.”

Biret’s discography is impressive and extensive, and whilst concentrated firmly in the romantic repertoire also encompasses works such as the three immensely complex Boulez sonatas, and the piano sonata and transcriptions by her mentor, Wilhelm Kempff (We heard her in Liszt’s transcriptions of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique and the nine Beethoven symphonies. Mus Ed) Earlier this year Naxos released a 12 CD boxed set of Brahms’ complete piano works, which includes not only the well-known pieces, but also his 51 Exercises, cadenzas to various concertos and some transcriptions. Brahms passed on the exercises to Clara Schumann with a warning not to play them too often, possibly because the demands they make could induce tension problems. Biret claims to have recorded all 51 one after the other and doesn’t find them pianistically dangerous.

“Brahms’ Exercises demonstrate where his priorities were: what he wanted from pianists in places such as the Paganini Variations. There are also oments within th exercises which remind me of the Fourth Symphony – so I think they are musically very good and also historically interesting. In Brahms cadenzas, certain harmonies are surprising – such as those in the G-major Mozart Piano Concerto K453, the manuscripts of which are in the Library of Congress. You have to play these harmonies in such a way as to almost make them logical.”

Besides these peripheral yet interesting opuses, Biret has also included her own transcription of songs from the cycle Die schone Magelone – following very much in the virtuoso tradition of Liszt and Rachmaninov. “When I compose a transcription I hear orchestral colours – sometimes you want, for instance, to emulate the sound of a horn. But you also have to modify your approach, because it’s the structure of the work and the sense of the words which should be the first considerations. The reflections of orchestral timbre is there to enhance the transcriptions – like dabs of colour in a painting. I’ve also transcribed two of Brahms’ symphonies (3rd and 4th), the third, I think, being the most successful. In Brahms’ orchestration there is a lot of doubling, and you have to be careful not to make too much of that in the piano transciption, but take the main line and play in a way which gives the feeling of orchestral sound.”

I wondered whether this compositional skill was acquired under the legendarily rigorous supervision of Nadia Boulanger, with whom she had studied at the Conservatoire. “No – she did’t set transcriptions much, but although she disliked Rachmaninov’s music – she considered him too Hollywood – she thought his Mendelssohn and Bach transcriuptions were the best one could do. I transcriber Die schone Magelone because I love it: it’s one of the most beautiful song cycles, and has one of the most challenging piano accompaniments. I made a paraphrase first in which I tried to reflect the emotion, texture, and also the strophic form. It’s particularly important with a song to articulate the phrase and imagine the words. I don’t know whether I am following a virtuoso tradition so much as continuing what I did when I was extremely young, when I played everything I heard – like the Nutcracker Suite by ear. There was a time when people became very purist about transcriptions, but why not make them? I don’t see what’s wrong with them if they’re done well. I play Godowsky’s Paraphrases which are very rich: like chocolate and cream cake with jam on top; but if they are played with elegance it works.”

Another departure for Biret comes with her booklet note for the Naxos set concerning parallels between the themes of Schumann’s Introduction and Allegro Op.134 (a work dedicated to Brahms) and Brahms’ First Piano Concerto. Apart from that, recording naturally assumes a high priority in future plans. ” I’m busy recording all of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concertos with the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra and Antoni Wit; and I hope to record some more Scriabin. His music is a kind of quest for the impossible – he’s someone who tried to completely destroy the established order with harmonies and provoke a cataclysm. It’s on the edge of a world that’s extremely dangerous.”

From the dangerous to the complex: I wondered how, in works as difficult as Boulez’s piano sonatas, she managed to make the music intelligible to the audience. “First you have to envisage the whole piece and make sense of it – not just play note by note and bar by bar. Once you have a total vision and conception – and this applies for every work from the classical through the contemporary – you then add the high points.”

I note with interest Biret’s relatively small hands and asked how she could master certain works, such as Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto: “There are no limitations to repertoire, because if you want to do something do something, you do it. There are always more possibilities than you think – it’s just a question of imagination.”

Idil Biret’s 12CD Brahms set is on Naxos 8.501201

by Joanne Talbot