Clavier Magazine / US (November 1999)
by Idil Biret

The best way to develop control over a piece is to start practicing very slowly, keeping fingers close to the keyboard. Be strict with time and tempo; play purposefully, entirely without pedal. Play all the way through this way, playing legato with the indicated or implied dynamics. When pedal is added later, performance will be easier. Listen analytically for problems and fix them. Later you can loosen up and add rubato.

I ask students to imagine feeling the notes with their fingers before playing them; this is muscle memory. Fingerings should be chosen for smoothness; for example, in a right hand octave passage use 5-4-5 instead of 5-5-5. Volume and articulation will clarify the difference between the melody and accompaniment; a pianist should be very clear in differences, even small dynamic changes. I have students play lines of music and bring out the character of each line; I show them how to feel the tension within a piece and ways to express it so the music flows and drives forward. A pianist should have something to say in each piece and bring this our in performance.

Before you learn or record a work, do you tend to listen to past recordings or allow yourself to be influenced by other pianists? If so, any particular pianist?

It can be either way. Sometime I discover a work thanks to a recording and I want to play it. Often, I first analyse and learn the work and then I listen to as many recordings I can get hold of. In Brahms I always admired the great lines and noble conceptions of Wilhelm Backhaus. In my opinion his recording of the 2nd Concerto will never be surpassed in beauty. Arthur Rubinstein’s playing touches me with the perfect balance of lyricism and classicism. My teacher, Wilhelm Kempff had a more romantic vision of Brahms and he was totally against a heavy handed conception of Brahms’ music. The more I learn, the more I discover how much he was right especially on the 1st Concerto – which as with every Brahms work is a Schumanesque reminiscence. Recently I discovered a most beautiful interpretation of the Intermezzo op.117 no.2 by Ignace Tiegermann. This is, for me, an almost ideal performance of this piece.

You have now recorded over ten discs of Brahms’ solo piano music. What would you say the main obstacles are when learning and interpreting (his music)?

One has to be careful not to become heavy handed (the big chords are easy to be accentuated) and the sound texture should never be thick. The polyphony should be as transparent as possible. A good balance needs to be established between the sometime mild romanticism of the typical “sturm und drang’ period of his life, the neo-classical period of the middle years and the admirable later years. Also, a good knowledge of all his works is necessary for the right comprehension and the right vision of the complex personality of Brahms. For example, a chamber music piece or part of a symphony can lead one to better understand the sort of conception to adopt in a problematic piano passage elsewhere. Also, technically Brahms’ piano music is very demanding with many double notes, a very rich polyphonic texture and difficult jumps.

Moving from the exercises to the mainstream repertoire, we went on to discuss the major challenges which face the Brahms interpreter at the piano. ‘First of all, one must take care that it never sounds dry or academic. At the same time there is the combination of a really deep romanticism contained within a framework which is often very classical in spirit – in that way, Brahms is very close to Chopin. Chopin too has a deeply classical strain, though his forms as such are not really “classical”, and both composers combine great confidence with a very introspective personality. With very few exceptions, you really can’t play either of them flamboyantly, and certainly with Brahms it’s very rare that you can afford to play with the kind of freedom that you can in Schumann, for instance, who really is a romantic composer.’

In view of her astounding repertoire and the apparent ease with which she negotiates such things as Liszt’s arrangement of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, I wondered if Biret had ever found piano-playing difficult. “Well I’m lucky, I’m naturally supple. I’m double-jointed, and my fingers take naturally to the keyboard, but there was a time when I was really not happy with the quality of my sound, and I did quite a lot of work with weights – not very heavy weights, around 500 grams -, but enough to provide the necessary resistance to deepen my sound. This isn’t something I would recommend to everyone, however. It worked for me, but it could actually be dangerous for some people I think.

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 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.”

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.”

RSB: Your ear doesn’t just imitate but also creates as well.

I.B.: Yes. I would improvise a lot, and I would also improvise in the style of the composers I heard. It was second nature to me. For, instance, I had heard Franck’s Symphony in D Minor. I don’t know exactly what it was, but I understood certain things about the modulations and things like that, and I was able to play in the style of Franck … or Schumann, or Beethoven! But, Nadia Boulanger was very strict. I wanted to add anything to my repertoire, and she would say, “No. You’re going to play Scarlatti sonatas, you’re going to play Mozart, you’re going to play Bach” – which I loved – “and there’s no question of the other.” That bothered me a bit. I had a natural curiosity. Yet when I was at the Conservatory, we didn’t do that many different pieces. Occasionally, we would spend three or four weeks on a single work. I didn’t study piano with Nadia Boulanger, but she would tell me to sit down and play something for her. And sometimes we would spend an entire hour’s lesson on two measures. When you’re ten or eleven, you don’t quite understand the necessity for such things! But, I learned an enormous amount in that way. She would give me a brilliant lesson where she would show me how to look at a single passage under a microscope. That was extremely useful for me, although I feel that one must never lose sight of the broader lines. And so Nadia Boulanger is a person who put reins on me and kept me from spreading myself too thin, which I could easily have done.

One special area of the piano literature I greatly like is the transcription. In addition to the Symphonie Fantastique of Berlioz which I also recorded for Naxos, I have recorded many Schubert song and Wagner opera transcriptions by Liszt. During the Liszt centennial year in 1986 I recorded Liszt’s piano transcriptions of the nine symphonies of Beethoven for EMI. I also played all of them that year in four recitals at the Montpellier Festival (broadcast live by Radio France) and the individual symphonies in concerts in Paris, London, New York, Tokyo, Milan, Munich, Frankfurt and Istanbul. Later, in 1996, at the end of my Brahms cycle for Naxos when some space remained in the last CD, I transcribed four songs from the beautiful song cycle ‘Die Schöne Magelone’ and recorded them.

NX: As you say, your next project for Naxos is the Etudes (Books I and II) of Ligeti. This includes the first ever recording of Etude No. 14a, a piece sometimes called ‘unplayable’. What is so difficult about this etude and how do you approach it?

I.B.: Etude 14a has obvious problems. Every double note in the right and left hand has to have the same strength in the attack of the note. It means control of energy from the first note to the last. There is also the problem of the nuances from fff to ffffffff. In this respect what can be achieved easily on a mechanical piano is less so on a normal piano which has sound limits that cannot be exceeded. Is it then impossible to play this etude on a normal piano? No – as Ligeti himself says, with appropriate preparation performance by a pianist is also possible. The best way to prepare this etude is to repeat it as much as possible. As muscle control is very important here the pianist needs to repeat as much and as often as possible. While doing this one should never allow oneself to get tired and become stiff. If well practiced Etude 14a is an excellent exercise to strengthen the muscles and enlarge the sound of a pianist.

I had a teacher in Paris who was absolutely sensational. This was a lady who was one of Cortot’s pupils. She used to be at the École Normale de Musique before the war. After the war, I don’t know what happened exactly, but she was away from all official teaching. She used to come to Nadia Boulanger’s place, because she was also a pupil of Nadia Boulanger. She was the most independent lady I have ever met. She said, “I have my own work, I don’t belong anywhere.” So all the “official” teachers would go and consult her, but in the back room-in secret! She was an extraordinary lady, and most of the things I have learned come from her. She had a remarkable way of analyzing music-she would see everything as a whole.

B.J.: The arc of the work?

I.B.: She said, “Never cut a work, never cut a phrase. Just think that this phrase goes to another one,” and she said, “There is dead music, and there is lively music. Dead music is when you sit on the first beat. Before starting a work, you have to think it has already started; the silence is already part of the work.” She admired Brahms, too. I asked her one day to write everything down, but she said, “This can only be told orally; I can never write all these things, because there would be some things missing. It’s a teaching you can only give like this.” She died at the age of 101.

Let’s try to understand what is behind Chopin,” and slowly I realized. There was also the bel canto. I felt that I was missing something, that I was not close enough to opera-that I had to study opera, bel canto, more, in order to have the sound I wanted. Sefik helped a lot in bringing me to this, because I had been living in a sort of rarefied atmosphere. At that time, too, I played an enormous amount of contemporary music.

B.J.: Your husband was saying to me at lunch that he felt that when you were playing Boulez, it was having a bad effect on your touch.

I.B.: He is right. That’s what I realized. When I played so much contemporary music, with all those kinds of clusters, I realized that my sound was starting to become very aggressive, and I decided, “It’s impossible, I have to stop doing this.” I had to find a way of controlling the muscles to play all the different kinds of pieces well. When I play Chopin now, it may be a strange expression, but I have the feeling of being held up by invisible ropes, almost hanging. It’s a lighter touch. But I wouldn’t play Brahms that way-in Brahms I wouldn’t have the ropes. As a principle, you have always to play legato unless it is written differently. This means that it is only the weight you put in the arms and hands which changes. In Chopin often you have to put a lighter weight. In Brahms the weight will be heavier. Liszt is different again-it has a sort of nervosity. It’s all muscular, it’s very physical; it’s important to control this. In contemporary music you have to make differences of all kinds, so you cannot play contemporary music the same way. In a way I was not ready enough to make the difference, so it affected my playing for a little while, and that was not very positive. Now I can I think do it, and it doesn’t affect my other playing. I can at once jump from one thing to the other. Every day, when I practice, I play the Chopin etudes; I play the Feux follets of Liszt, some Transcendental Etudes, the 51 Exercises of Brahms, the Schumann Toccata; these are my daily pieces. Besides scales, it’s important to do it with the music-it helps a lot, and these are wonderful encore pieces too.

B.J.: What about your own composing?

I.B.: As I mentioned, my problem was that I was thinking in the style of Scriabin, and then I discovered that it had already been done! It’s terrible! The same thing happened to me when I tried one day to write a small novelette. I wrote something, and I thought, ah, I can really do something. And then I bought a book by Camus-exactly the same story! Impossible-the second time that happened, that’s too much! But now I have some ideas. I’m thinking of writing some etudes-normal etudes, not exercises-for the technical use of the pedal. You can do a lot with pedaling, and I think we don’t always use it as we should. You have first to be able to play everything perfectly legato without the help of the pedal. Once you have mastered that, you will use the pedal to give a different sound-dimension. As Chopin said, “The pedal is the soul of the piano.” I don’t think we use the middle pedal enough-we only use the two outer pedals, but with the middle one you can achieve unbelievable effects. One should develop more the use of the middle pedal, and I think I should write something to exemplify this.

Artists must recognize and express the nuances of tones by carefully listening to Chopin pieces

MN: The program notes contained your writing about Chopin’s music. You said, for example, “Chopin’s music should not be played energetically at large concert halls. His music is better suitable to smaller places like a salon within the limit of volume inherent to the piano”. Can you please explain more specifically that point?

I.B.: Today an artist is often obliged to play Chopin in big halls that accommodate 2000 to 3000 people. In my view, it may be difficult to share intimacy between the audience and myself in such a large hall. Some pieces work well even in large halls, but the Sonata no.2, Fantasy Impromptu and others do not always appear to be good in large auditoriums. Chopin wrote his music with the audience of 200 to 300 people in mind. He composed in consideration of a certain acceptance of the audience. However, when it comes to performances in large halls with an audience of 3000 people, an artist unconsciously seeks for a larger sound beyond the audience acceptance originally planned for the work. The pianist tends to play louder and louder so that the entire audience can hear him. But in playing louder there is substantial risk that the bel canto – the great attraction of Chopin’s music – will be impaired. So, it may be the best way to play Chopin in salons where he used to play.

MN: You also said, “it is essential in playing the Chopin music to recognize its natural voice portion and harmony, as well as to a certain classical method to play and moderation to use”. Please tell me about them more specifically.

I.B.: A flat and G sharp are, for example, mechanically the identical sound on the piano keyboard. However, harmony delicately differs between A flat and G sharp musically and musical scalewise in actual works. The difference may not be pursued on the piano physically on the musical scale, but pianists must carefully listen to the sensitive difference in a nuance filled palette of musical tones, as it is in harmony, and they must also project their interpretations about the difference into their musical expressions. One of the attractions of his music is that Chopin was really aware of polyphony to the minute extent. Once you discover these things in his music, you will see that the awareness of natural voice and the recognition of harmony are essential in playing his works.

In Chopin’s music various elements that decorate the theme of each work are sensitively interacted with one another and you cannot organize them in the work simply by capturing the theme faithfully as its develops. Every element that revolves around the theme has its own meaning and these elements are integral part of the work. It is like a poem in which you may fail to capture its significance simply by misunderstanding one adjective or particle. Extremely sensitive and extremely intricate is his music. How to get their insights reflected in their performances is a challenge for pianists.

MN: What do you mean by “a certain classical method to play and moderation to use”?

I.B.: I said “classical” because I was aware of performances of great pianists in the past behind that word. They seemed to have their unique styles to play, but I always feel in common where their persistent effort was made by Kempff, Cortot, Paderewski and early Rubinstein in pursuit of beautiful sound. This interests me most. I read a book titled “Chopin seen by his students” that interested me greatly. It was written by J.J. Eigendilger about many people who were influenced by Chopin and students who took lessons from him. The book described how Chopin gave his lessons; he focused on legato above all and always demanded his pupils to play legato perfectly. I could well understand what he pursued through his music by reading that book. My resulting impression about Chopin was never to exaggerate or be aggressive.

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