pierreboulez2.jpg“There ought to be a law” people used to say – those who heard Idil Biret play at a time when she was not even three years of age. It did not take long for the Turkish Grand National Assembly to pass a bill, bearing her name, which allowed her to study in Paris. She was only eleven when, at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees, she played Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos with Wilhelm Kempff. At fifteen, she graduated from the Paris Conservatory with three “premiers prix”: accompaniment, piano and chamber music, having studied each with Nadia Boulanger, Jean Doyen and Jacques Fevrier respectively. She completed her pianistic formation under Alfred Cortot and Wilhelm Kempff. The child-prodigy had developed into a mature artist, one of the greatest pianists of all time, as this recording would corroborate. Equally at home in contemporary music and in the standard repertoire, she gave recitals all over the world and played as soloist with orchestras under such conductors as Boult, Monteux, Van Otterloo, Rozhdestvensky, Sargent and Scherchen, including an engagement with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Erich Leinsdorf. She is the recipient of the Harriet Cohen-Dinu Lipatti Gold Medal (London, 1959) and twice the Lily Boulanger Memorial Fund Award (Boston, 1954 and 1964). The programs of her previous recordings range from Beethoven and Brahms to Bartok and Prokofiev (for the French label, Vega) and she recently recorded (for Decca-London) Rachmaninoff’s Corelli Variations and Moments Musicaux.

With Pierre Boulez’s Second Piano Sonata Idil Biret not only makes her American recording debut, but also presents the first U.S. recording of this important contemporary work – it was previously recorded in Europe by Yvonne Loriod for Vega and Claude Helffer for Deutsche Grammophon. Composed in 1948, this sonata occupies a position that exerted a causative influence upon Boulez’s subsequent music. Its experimental and ground-breaking nature may be better understood if one regards it as having grown out of a response to Webern’s Variations (1936), the companion piece on this album. The rigid, geometric patterns of Webern’s work, the classical purity of its encompassing organization, seem to have served as a base of departure for Boulez’s broadened structures that are equally rigid but incomparably more complex. It is this very complexity that conceals the strict framework of the entire composition and projects it as the product of an ardent improvisatory impetus. It demands from its Interpreter a similar approach, along with technical prowess and intellectual control of the highest order” It was only a matter of course that this work, together with influences emanating from other sources (chiefly that of John Cage), should lead the path not only to open-form and aleatory compositions, including Boulez’s own Third Piano Sonata, but also, through its new pianistic language, urge the development of a whole new generation of virtuoso pianists, such as Aloys and Alfons Kontarsky, Marcelle Mercenier, Frederic Rzewski, David Tudor and Charles Wuorinen.

Finnadar SR9004
produced in 1973

The New YorkerFeb. 8, 1982 – by Nicholas Kenyon


Stereo Review “Best of the month”Dec. 1973, by Eric Salzman


In between, there were works by Virgil Thomson and Leonardo Balada, and the local premiere of a successful piece of West Coast minimalism, John Adams’ “Common Tones in Simple Times.”But I slipped out and down Broadway to the Merkin Concert Hall, where the Turkish pianist Idil Biret was giving a rare performance of Pierre Boulez’s Second Piano Sonata.Miss Biret’s way with the piece was astonishing. She slammed into the keyboard and attacked the music tempestuously. She played from memory, and drove the music with an unrelenting virtuosity, scarcely even pausing between movements.

All the gestures of the work – the stark contrasts of register and volume, the angular structure of the phrases, the sharp delineation of the part-writing – were there in outline. And Miss Biret’s playing was for the most part amazingly accurate.

But she often skated over passages or left out odd notes if they got in the way of her vision of the music. Her speeds were very fast.

Maurizio Pollini, in his brilliant recording (Deutsche Grammophon), knocks a couple of minutes off Boulez’s timings in the score, but Miss Biret reduced the eIeven-minute second movement to less than nine minutes, and the eleven-minute final movement (which Pollini does in ten) to eight and a half. No wonder she couldn’t get quite all the notes in.

Nevertheless, this was a gripping, impressive account of a commanding score. What Mr. Griffiths describes in his book as “the massively powered developments of the sonata’s outer movements,” which “bring an auto-destructive impetus to the classical moulds of sonata allegro and fugue,” were here given an electric charge; Miss Biret proved Mr. Griffiths’ conclusion that “the violence of the work is not just superficial rhetoric but symptomatic of a whole aesthetic of annihilation.”

An invigorating twenty-four minutes; would that it had lasted a full half hour.

Two new and notable recordings which between them contain the three piano sonatas of Pierre Boulez suggest the continuing interest in and importance of the creative work of the music director of the New York Philharmonic:Sonata No. 1 and the completed movements of No. 3 have been recorded for Columbia, with the composer’s cooperation, by Charles Rosen, and Sonata No. 2 is performed by the Turkish pianist Idil Biret for Atlantic’s new Finnadar label.The demands of the First Sonata – playing and listening both – are, if anything, exceeded by those of the Second, which projects similar serial concerns, but on a level of far greater scope and complexity. Only one approach is possible: the mastery of its technical difficulties must be absolute so that one is freed completely to play the work as if it were being invented in the process.

Idil Biret, Turkey’s leading pianist and a musician of secure European reputation, is equal to this challenge. She does not merely sustain the thirty-minute length – enormously ambitious for music that cannot fall back on the familiar landmarks of tonality – but inflects and shapes it in a remarkable way.

The drama here – and this is something more than any ordinary abstract canvas – is the dialogue between a thought process and its corporeal realization, between the musical idea itself and its expression as sound-color of an almost improvisatory nature. Miss Biret catches all this, and she does so beautifully. A sensitive performance of the by-now classic Webern Variations completes an impressive American recording debut.

The piano sound is (like Miss Biret’s playing) strong and clear: it is also (unlike Miss Biret’s playing) somewhat on the dry side.

Los Angeles / Herald ExaminerJanuary 15, 1982, by Mark Swed


Fanfare Magazine
Biret is equal to the challenge of BoulezSome years ago Idil Biret made an impressive recording of Boulez’s Second Piano Sonata – a half-hour of some of the most violent and complex music ever created for the instrument – and it is striking. But that recording hardly prepared one for the effect of hearing the Turkish pianist play the piece live in her West Coast debut Wednesday night at USC’s Schoenberg Institute.When Boulez wrote his sonata in 1948, he was the quintessential angry young man. The work sets out to destroy the classical molds which had served composers for more than two centuries, and it succeeded so well that music has never been the same since.

The sonata’s difficulties are legendary, and few pianists dare tackle it. Yet Biret proved fearless in the face of near-impossible rhythms and the possibility of the negative audience reactions usually generated by such consciously hostile music. She brilliantly brought out all of its explosive force, and proved that the seminal work still has the power to shock and astonish. The rhythmic clapping that followed confirmed it.

The Boulez, however, was but a quarter of an extensive program offering Bartok’s rarely-heard Seven “Sketches” Op. 9, and Two “Elegies” Op. 8B, Liszt’s “St. Francis Preaching to the Birds”, two of Ahmed Saygun’s Preludes and culminating in Prokofiev’s massive Eighth Sonata. Each received intensely focused and clearly articulated performances.

Biret never attempts to make the piano seem anything but the percussive instrument that it is, and this was a definite advantage for the kind of music she programmed. In Bartok’s rhapsodic “Elegies” she left no question of her prodigious and all-encompassing technique; in Liszt’s miniature tone poem she made the birdlike treble filigree sparkle with concentrated metallic sound; in the Prokofiev sonata, a musical reflection on war, she overwhelmed with the iron strength of her sound.

The excerpts from Saygun’s Six Preludes, which were written for the pianist and heard for the first time in this country, gave too brief a glimpse at the 74-year-old Turkish composer. But the two impressionistic preludes had an invitingly mysterious and antique quality about them, and they were fitting vehicles for Biret’s compelling virtuosity.

Boulez Sonatas 1 to 3 by Claude Helffer,piano (Release ASTREE AS 60)

By squeezing the Second Sonata onto a side, Astree gives us all three Boulez sonatas – at least, as much as has been published – on a single disc, making this the easiest and least expensive way to add this music to your collection. But the record’s value is mitigated by two factors. First, The sound, while decent, is hardly up to Astrees best: there’s a great deal of pre- and post-echo, which is especially disruptive in works whose aesthetic depends so much on silence. More important, the performances of the first two sonatas – while very good do not quite match the competition.Boulez’s major contribution to the sonata literature is the Second. It seems at first to be a cold, unemotional working-out of mathematical gestures. Indeed, in his preface, Boulez warns his performer to avoid, absolutely, “what is conventionally called ‘expressive nuance.’ ” But that should not be taken to mean that the work is inexpressive; rather, it is a sign that Boulez wants us to hear his own expressivity, rather than that of the performer. Indeed, despite its imposing intellectual apparatus, the Second Sonata barely conceals an almost Lisztian flamboyance; and its recurring trills which many commentators have interpreted as a link to the intellectual rigors of late Beethoven, might well be seen as a sign of its indebtedness to the nightmare romanticism of Scriabin as well. Moody and brutal, the Second Sonata can serve the same function that Prokofiev’s scores did a generation or two ago; it’s a first-rate showcase for contemporary virtuosity.

The work has been recorded fairly frequently (indeed, this is Helffer’s second attempt), but Schwann currently lists only those by Pollini (DG 2530803) and Biret (Finnadar SR 9004). Fortunately, both are excellent – and have the advantage of emphasizing complementary aspects of the score. Pollini’s performance, the icier, is more alert 10 the music’s violence: note how he virtually shocks you into attention in the opening measures. Biret’s performance, on the other hand, reminds us of the music’s fantastic side: she’s more effective, for instance, in the impressionistic haze of the second movement, and she manages to give the third movement an almost jazzy flavor. Against those standards, Helffer’s performance – although no mean achievement seems slightly heavy-handed. In part, the problem lies in his rounded tone – the machine-gun attacks so crucial to the piece are dulled, and the rhythms are slightly soggy. More important, though, he is not always able to articulate the music’s curve. Biret and Pollini simply carry you forward; with Helffer, you occasionally ask yourself just where you’re going.

New York Times
February 1, 1982
Idil Biret, Pianist, Plays Boulez and LisztIdil Biret is apparently one of those pianists who are capable of memorizing and playing almost anything. The demonstration of her prowess at the Abraham Goodman House on Tuesday centered on Pierre Boulez’s Sonata No. 2, a formidable post-Webern composition dating from 1948 that, even now, only a handful of pianists will attempt to play with the notes before them.But her program did not stop with Boulez. It also included Bartok’s Seven Sketches (Op. 9) and Two Elegies (Op. 8B), Liszt’s “St. Francis Preaching to the Birds”, Three Preludes by Saygun and Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 8.

A former prodigy who was sent by Turkey, her native land, to study at the Paris Conservatory, Miss Biret was awarded first prizes in piano, chamber music and accompaniment by the institution when she was only 15 years old. This means that she had been subjected to very rigorous musical disciplines at a tender age in order to gain the prizes.

Pierre Boulez (* 1925)