About the background of the recordings
Written by Sefik Yüksel
(Photos on top and below: Biret at St. Bavon Church, where the symphonies were recorded)

Following a suggestion by Mr. Michel Devos, a Belgian independent recording engineer, Idil Biret recorded Liszt’s piano transcriptions of  three Beethoven Symphonies in July and September 1985 for  local release by EMI in Belgium.The then director of the Belgian EMI classical division the late Mr. José Langlois, who had known Idil Biret and her work for many years, found these recordings to be of outstanding quality meriting international release and made a proposal to this effect to the international division of EMI. This proposal was approved at a meeting in October of the division headed by Dr. Andreas von Imhoff who also proposed to Idil Biret to record all the nine Symphonies. Idil Biret accepted this offer and went to London in November to discuss the details of the project with Dr. von Imhoff. Later, in the midst of the recording preparations, an unexpected letter was sent  on 2nd December to Ms. Biret from EMI in London informing that the project would not go ahead. The full text of this letter is reproduced below:

Dear Mme Biret,

Dr. von Imhoff  has passed me your proposal for the Beethoven Symphonies. With regret I have to tell you that we are unable to contemplate this project at present. With best wishes.

Signed by  Manager Artists & Repertory

Why this unjust  action was taken has never been formally explained by EMI. No contact was made with the person who signed this letter who later occupied a top post in EMI.  There was reason to believe that intervention of certain  persons working for other pianists had influenced this decision. The matter, however, was not left at that. Through high level contacts in the business world reaching the chairman of Thorn/EMI, the holding company of EMI, this decision was  reversed. The late Ambassador M. Nuri Birgi’s help here will always be gratefully remembered. EMI gave the green light to continue the project in mid January  on the condition that the master tapes would be delivered by May to allow release of the box set during the Liszt Centennial year in 1986. Outside financing to cover the recording costs would also have to be found. (The recording and editing cost of  US$ 60.000 was ultimately paid by the estate of Nedret Büyükyüksel. Idil Biret did not receive any financial compensation for her work on this project.)

An almost impossible task had now been set for Biret. Precious time was lost with the stoppage of work and only three months remained to complete the recording and editing of the tapes. As outlined in the enclosed newspaper article, after six weeks of intensive preparation, four more symphonies were recorded in March. Following a further ten days preparation the last two symphonies were recorded in early April. Since the Steinway concert grand piano had to be brought to the location, the recordings were done  on consecutive days  – without free days in between – to keep costs to a minimum. Thus Idil Biret worked at home on a different symphony on each day between 09.00 -18.00 hrs; went to the recording venue at 19.00 hrs and recorded between 20.00-04.00 hrs. She had about four hours of sleep per night during the recording days. Idil Biret thus completed the remaining six symphonies in two periods of four nights of recordings, separated by less than  two weeks. It is important to note that there was no producer assisting the recording sessions. During the same period  Teldec in Germany and Harmonia Mundi in France were also recording the Beethoven Symphonies’ piano transcriptions with various pianists. Both these projects remained incomplete at the end of 1986.

When information spread about Idil Biret’s recordings Radio France Musique extended an invitation to her to perform the nine symphonies at their music festival  in Montpellier which would be devoted to the works of Franz Liszt that year. She accepted and played them in four recitals on 26, 27 July and 2,3 August. All the concerts in this first ever known complete performance of the Beethoven Symphonies’ piano transcriptions by Liszt were broadcast live by Radio France which billed them as ‘The Event of the Festival’.

The six LP box set was released by EMI/Electrola Germany in October 1986 and was distributed throughout Europe. It was instantly in the news  receiving wide press, radio and even TV coverage. Idil Biret included the symphonies in her concert programs in Frankfurt (Alte Oper), Munich (Herkulessaal), Paris (Salle Gaveau), London (Barbican Hall), New York (Alice Tully Hall), Tokyo (Casals Hall) and other cities during the season of 1986/87 and later years.

Some of the people involved in the ongoing recording of the other sets of the symphonies  campaigned against Idil Biret’s recordings. Most prominently, the producer of the Harmonia Mundi project  Jacques Drillon, also a music critic, wrote a hostile article in the magazine Le Nouvelle Observateur – a most unethical behavior, given the conflict of interest with his role as producer of a competitive series. The eminent French musicologist Henry-Louis de la Grange came with an outstanding and admiring review in the pages of the same magazine  shortly afterwards. In Germany, a few articles were published which compared Idil Biret’s recordings not very favorably with other available versions. But, many critics from all over Europe came with glowing reviews of Biret’s recordings and public performances of the symphonies which overwhelmed the negative publicity.

It is thought that this was the last LP box set produced by EMI which was then in the process of transferring all its production to CD format. EMI did not  release the Beethoven Symphonies set on CD in Europe. However, Toshiba/EMI in Japan released the symphonies 3,4,5,6 and 9 on four CDs in 1990 during Idil Biret tour in Japan. Later, EMI Germany was contacted again regarding the CD reissue of these recordings. The following letter, dated 17 October 1996,  was received from their head office  in Cologne:

The recording of the 9 Beethoven Symphonies’ piano transcriptions by Franz Liszt – played by Idil Biret

As this recording is really of a very high standard we decided to release it as a CD-box set next year, perhaps within a budget edition, but we are also discussing a release in one of our midprice series.

Signed by Director Artists and Repertoire

Despite this letter and the admission finally of the very high quality of the recordings, EMI subsequently reversed its decision and did not reissue the symphonies on CD. Perhaps the UK management or other influential forces intervened again. However, this time their action was of little consequence and understandable. Idil Biret had by then recorded over thirty CDs for Naxos, the new rival of EMI in the world of classics, which were selling in the hundreds of thousands  all over the world. Her recording of the complete piano works of Chopin had won a ‘Grand Prix’ in Poland and the recording of  the three Boulez Sonatas a ‘Golden Diapason’ in France.  EMI reissue of the Beethoven recordings at this time would have helped increase the popularity of an artist who was now under contract to a competitor.

Idil Biret owns the copyright of the 9 Beethoven Symphonies’ recordings which reverted to her from EMI in accordance with the contract. It is intended to reissue the Symphonies again in the near future. This release will be part of a complete Beethoven project including Biret’s ongoing recordings of the 32 Sonatas and the recording of the 5 Piano Concertos the Choral Fantasia.

In December 2003 the symphonies have been re-released in a 6 CD box-set and are available completely on compact disc for the first time.

Recording dates of the Beethoven Symphonies (13 days):

12 July 1985 – Symphony no.4
13,14 July 1985 – Symphony no.5
13,14 Sept 1985 – Symphony no.1
19 March 1986 – Symphony no.2
20 March 1986 – Symphony no.3
21 March 1986 – Symphony no.8
22 March 1986 – Symphony no.7
1,2 April 1986 – Symphony no.6
3,4 April 1986 – Symphony no.9