Idil Biret
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Jeremy Nicholas

Classic CD
July 1993


Idil Biret isn’t a household name. That could soon change. Her complete set of Chopin’s piano music on Naxos isn’t just an amazing bargain at £5 a disc – it’s also world-class. Any complete set of Chopin’s works on CD is important. With world-class playing it’s remarkable. And at £5 per disc it’s astonishing. Who’s inspiring the superlatives – Ashkenazy, Pogorelich, Pollini? No: Idil Biret. Jeremy Nicholas met her in Paris…

The first piece of Chopin Idil Biret ever played (the Waltz in A minor, Op.34 no.2), she played by ear. At the time she did not know how to read music; she was, after all, only three years old. Now in her early 50s, the diminutive Turkish pianist has recently released the last disc in a complete cycle of Chopin’s solo piano music. Since the cycle is for budget label Naxos and since Naxos is currently the third highest volume seller of discs worldwide, many people’s first taste of Chopin will be Biret’s.

The grass is always greener

The thought doesn’t make her entirely happy because her understanding of the music is constantly evolving: “You record and then a year later you discover something else. It’s terrible – and I know I’ll go on discovering new things.” But it’s a process Biret is sure Chopin himself would have condoned, a view confirmed by her reading of a fascinating book by Jean Jacques Eigeldinger (Chopin, Pianist and Teacher; Cambridge university Press) which draws on eye and ear-witness accounts of those who heard Chopin play and who studied his compositions with him. “He was improvising all the time. It’s impossible to play his music the same way twice. It’s against the spirit”.

As a budding prodigy in Ankara, Biret was not fond of Chopin. “I never heard it played by pianists in the way I thought it should be played. Then I realized the way I had dreamed of hearing Chopin was the way Cortot played it – a beautiful sound, never a harsh sound, always a singing tone – and then when I heard Ignaz Friedman on records, I understood Chopin”.

It was with Alfred Cortot, undoubtedly one of the great Chopin interpreters of history, that Biret studied after graduating from the Paris Conservatoire. She left with three first prizes at the age of 15. (Wilhelm Kempff had already displayed a long-term interest in her musical development and, for good measure, she took composition lessons from Nadia Boulanger.) “Kempff admired Cortot and considered him one of the most important pianists of our century. He went to Cortot for advice when he had some Chopin to record. I was very young and he was very old when I went to study with Cortot. I was in awe of him, he had such an incredible personality and he was very severe”.

Biret began her Chopin project at the end of 1990 and finished it in May 1992. She has lived with these works for a long time, but they are just part of her unusually large repertoire (including nearly 100 concertos). Noticing her small hands, I wondered if she had encountered technical difficulties with any of the pieces. “No, I can take a tenth so there are no problems, though there are certain etudes which are not easy. For example, Op.10 No.2. Chopin had specially formed hands which made it easy for him and it exists in two versions, one in which you keep the middle voice. That makes it even more difficult. So I played that one!”

Brahms and Liszt? No

What is different about playing Chopin as opposed to say Liszt or Brahms? “Chopin always asked for the perfect legato and never a thick sound. He always hated it when anybody banged. But he had double standards. The dedicatee of the Third Scherzo [his pupil Adolph Gutman] banged away all the time. But, from him it was acceptable apparently. We don’t know why. He was the only one. There are fioritura passages in Chopin – the Fourth Scherzo for instance – which are like a ribbon that you throw into the air and watch it fall down. Again, in that same piece you have to play very lightly on the surface of the keys. An equivalent touch in Liszt’s music would be his “Feux follets” whereas in Chopin it comes quite often. Liszt has other shades, it’s more orchestral; Chopin is totally the bel canto, the sound, the beauty. Having said that, there is a lot of violence in Chopin’s music: look at Polonaise No.4 in C minor and the bitterness and anger in the Second Polonaise, the impassioned outbursts at the end of the Barcarolle and Polonaise-Fantasie (both late works reflecting his psychological state at the time). But the power you need in these is not the same power as in Liszt. A Liszt forte is different from a Chopin forte – Chopin is less but the intensity is the same. That’s the most important point”.

Gems among the favourites

So what discoveries did biret make while preparing for these recordings? “The discovery was the Second Scherzo, even though it’s so well known. I had a wrong interpretation in my head which dates back to my childhood. Liszt hated the piece – “the Governess scherzo” he called it – and I remember some friends of my mother trying to play it. Then I discovered in the Chopin book that Chopin liked to play the opening so it could hardly be heard. I realized it was not the piece I thought it was. It’s a fantastic piece – the middle section one thinks of as having two voices. In fact there are four voices: the texture is very rich. You must have the middle voices otherwise there is no resistance. It becomes like a door which simply bangs shut”.

Disappointments? “Perhaps some of the pieces he wrote as a child but even then they’re not disappointing. There’s always something.” Even the First Sonata? “Yes! There are some very interesting things. The third movement [larghetto] is in 5/4 time – the first time it appears in piano music and the only time in Chopin. Previously there had been measures written in 4/4 which were really combinations of other time signatures, but it’s interesting that Chopin was the only one who dared to write 5/4 time.”

As to her own favourite Chopin players she has no hesitation in stating a preference for the playing of a past generation – Cortot, of course Rubinstein, some Paderewski and Rachmaninov. “The left hand of the A flat Waltz played by Rachmaninov! The perfect balance between the freedom in the right hand and the strict left hand – it’s absolutely what Chopin wanted to hear. He said, ‘If you want to know how to play my music well, go and listen to Pasta [Guiditta Pasta was a kind of legend having created the roles of Norma, Amina, Beatrice di Tenda, Anna Bolena] or any great diva and them you will learn. First sing – then you will understand.” It seems to be advice which Idil Biret has taken to heart.