Idil Biret
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Jeremy Siepmann

PIANO Magazine UK (Cover Feature)

March 1998


From Paris with Love

The Turkish virtuoso Idil Biret, long resident in France, has recently recorded the complete piano works of Brahms for Naxos. A labour of love, certainly, but as Jeremy Siepmann discovered, it’s only one of many.

Meeting Idil Biret (pronounced Birette, not Biray, as in French) is a refreshing experience. Here is an artist who appears to be wholly immersed in her art and quite unconcerned with the distractions of career. In this respect, though she is by no means old, there’s something rather old-fashioned about her. Turkish-born, she is predominantly French-trained. Her principal teachers were Nadia Boulanger, Alfred Cortot and Wilhelm Kempff (not a bad line-up), and she has been giving concerts since she was 4. Her technique is seemingly a stranger to difficulty and her repertoire is vast. Among many other things, she has given complete cycles of the 32 Beethoven Sonatas, she plays most of the better-known Bach, very nearly the complete piano works of Schumann, Scriabin, Bartok and Stravinsky, all the major works of Liszt, reams of Mozart and Debussy, and we are still near to the tip of the iceberg. For Naxos she has recorded the complete piano works of Chopin, Rachmaninov, Boulez (a surprise top-seller) and, most recently, Brahms (newly released in a bumper box which includes both the concertos and, uniquely, the 51 Exercises), and for EMI, the complete Beethoven symphonies in Liszt’s transcriptions. Is there I wondered, any limit to her enthusiasms? ‘No,’ she says, laughing. ‘I just love music! And I love doing many different kinds of pieces, all of which have their own problems and challenges and rewards – I also love the whole process of trying to make the music as clear as possible, as much itself as possible.’

For many years, Bach had no rivals as her favourite composer. ‘From the beginning, really as far back as I can remember, he represented everything I most loved in music. Playing and listening to Bach from a very early age, I came naturally to hear and think polyphonically.’ This propensity was refined and deepened when she went to Paris as a child, where Boulanger had her play fugues leaving out one voice or another and singing it instead. Boulanger’s influence was pervasive. ‘She taught not only harmony, counterpoint and composition, but really the whole of music, and she taught me a lot pianistically too.’ But at some cost to the pupil. ‘She was tremendously thorough in her training, and could spend up to an hour on a single bar or phrase. She was also extremely demanding. No matter what you did, it was never good enough. And this wasn’t easy, especially for a child of 10. She adored Bach and Monteverdi and Mozart and Chopin, and she felt a great sympathy, too, for Schumann and Liszt, but not for Brahms. She thought him too heavy-handed, too self-consciously serious, even rather boring. But at that time, you know, and perhaps especially in France, Brahms was almost completely ignored. When I first went to Paris I hardly know of his existence. But one day, a frien of my family’s, an excellent concert pianist, came to our house and played some of Brahms’ intermezzi and I was quite overwhelmed. This seemed to me exactly the kind of music I loved best, and if I could have composed, that’s how I would like to have composed – like Brahms!’

From that day on, Biret sight-read every piece of Brahms she could lay her hands on, though Boulanger, predictably didn’t approve: ‘This is not music for children!’ I remarked that it would be hard to find a composer less French than Brahms, but no sooner had I said it than I remembered Schnabel’s description of him as ‘the first impressionist’. ‘Yes, and I know what he meant, but it didn’t seem that way to Boulanger, to the French in general. It was when I began to work with Wilhelm Kempff that I first began really to deepen my understanding of how to play Brahms. He was always cautioning me not to play it too heavily, but to do it as lightly and with as much transparency of texture as possible. But he also felt as Schnabel did. ‘Think of Gieseking playing Debussy,’ he would say. ‘Play more impressionistically’ (this was the very word he used. At other times, in the fourth piece from op.76, for instance, he would urge me to play it as though it were Schumann. But he was very much less ‘Germanic’ in outlook than, for instance, Wilhelm Backhaus, whom I also admired tremendously. And Backhaus had actually heard Brahms play – the Second Piano Concerto, I think it was.”

Kempff’s stature as an artist, of course, is well established, but was he also a great teacher? “Oh, yes, I would say he was a very great teacher. I remember I often wanted to write down the things he told me, but he discouraged this. ‘The important things,’ he said, ‘you will remember as you play, and what is true and useful will become clear to you as you play and listen to the music, and you will select what is important and useful to you.’ He also taught me an incredible amount of pedaling. It was from Kempff that I learnt almost everything about the pedals. He was very subtle, and very economical, if I can put it that way. One thing which Boulanger, Kempff and Cortot had all in common as teachers was a determination to give me the greatest control of legato, and make me understand that this was something for the fingers, not the feet! While they all agreed that the pedal is the ‘soul’ of the piano, it was to be used for colouristic purposes only, not to hide things. And Cortot, you know, was really very sparing with the pedals.”

And how did Cortot and Kempff differ in their approach to teaching? “Cortot was more of a real teacher, I would say. I mean, he would often interrupt and say ‘No, you didn’t do that well. Start that again and listen more carefully’, while Kempff would say ‘Now you have heard what I think about this,, so think about it for awhile and see what happens’. When he was feeling rather tired, he would often teach by example; he would just play for me – and I must say it was an incredibly beautiful experience! But, there were many times when we worked together on things in very great detail.” Like the Mozart Double Concerto, for instance, which Biret performed with Kempff when she was 11. A daunting experience? “Not really, no. I actually didn’t think about it that way at all. I had known him, after all, since I was seven. He was really like a kind of uncle to me. He even said I should call him ‘Uncle Kempff’! Now, of course, I realize what that opportunity represented, but as a child it just seemed to me very natural. It may seem a little strange, but at the time it wasn’t something I felt all that excited about.”

No artist, of course, is influenced only by teachers. Apart from Boulanger, Kempff and Cortot, Biret was fundamentally affected by three equally great but very different artists: Rachmaninov, Furtwaengler and Casals.. “And you know, Rachmaninov was another one Boulanger didn’t like! She admired his general musicianship but she really couldn’t stand his music, which she thought very ordinary and sentimental. But once, when I went back to Istanbul on a holiday, I heard Rachmaninov’s famous recordings of Schumann’s Carnaval and the Chopin B flat minor Sonata, and it was a great revelation to me – and absolutely not sentimental. Rather the reverse, actually. Apart from many other things, I had never heard such masterfully built crescendos, the way he was able to build up the tension over very long spans in one unbroken arc, losing nothing of detail along the way, and always so directed! And the music never lost any of its momentum, its continuous movement toward a goal.

‘With Furtwaengler, it was above all his extraordinary phrasing, the way he breathed the music, again over such long spans. I don’t think I know of anything more beautiful than his recording of Tristan. It’s just unbelievable what he does with it. And it is so beautiful the way he never attacks music. It’s as if the music has always been there, living and breathing continuously, and we just happen to come upon i.

‘Casals also had this kind of amazingly natural but beautifully conceived phrasing, and this way of actually breathing the music. I think Casals and Furtwaengler understood musical breath as well as any singer. Their music-making is never divided up, never cut into pieces.’

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.

Safer, perhaps, though surprisingly little known, are Brahms’s 51 Exercises, of which Biret’s recording is likely to remain the first and last. But, as she rightly insists, these are very much more than just exercises. ‘They actually give us a way to understand better Brahms’s own priorities, musically and pianistically – an some of the exercises are actually very beautiful, musically. All the major problems that occur in Brahms’s piano music are dealt with in the exercises. The first thing that springs to mind is the exercise which also appears in the second book of the Paganini Variations, the one with the octaves and unisons, and the two hands in contrary motion, the emphasis on a perfect legato, the leaps – in Brahms’s music there are lots of really big, big jumps – and again, of course, the polyphony which is so much a part of his style.’

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.’

And her favourite Brahms? ‘I feel closest to the early and to the late works. I mean those early sonatas are so fantastic and original and daring, but in the middle-period works I sometimes feel that he became a little too preoccupied with the formal disciplines of Classicicsm, that he lost a certain kind of spontaneity, which comes back to him later. But at the same time, I love the Handel and the Paganini Variations.’

And it shows. Faced with Idil Biret’s best playing, even Nadia Boulanger might have changed her mind.