Idil Biret
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Singapore Festival

July 2004

Q. You started playing the piano at three years old and studied in Paris as a child with some of the world’s great pianists. How did this happen? In what ways did your mentors A. Cortot, W. Kempff and N. Boulanger inspire you? How were they different from one another?

I.B. My mother was an excellent pianist. She had musically high repertory which comprised of works such as Bach Preludes, Mozart and Beethoven Sonatas. Often we would have chamber music at home with my mother at the piano and her cousins who were good violin players. I remember having heard the Bach concerto for two violins played by her cousins and my mother playing the orchestral part on the piano. Soon I started “aping”, as the saying goes, my mother. I played everything I was hearing by ear. Another cousin of my mother who was the foremost musicologist in Turkey at the time, Prof. Mahmut R. Gazimihal introduced me to the musical circles. in Ankara. I was also playing for the artists visiting the Turkish capital in the mid 1940s such as Monique Haas, Lelia Gousseau, Madeleine de Valmalete, Lazare Levy, Hermann Scherchen. A specia law was then passed in 1948 to send me to Paris to study. I went there with my parents at the age of seven. There I met and played for many great musicians of the time like Wilhelm Backhaus, Alfred Cortot, Arthur Rubinstein, Emil Gilels and my lifetime mentor Wilhelm Kempff who followed my development. With Nadia Boulanger I studied from the age of seven to twenty four. After graduating from the Paris Conservatory I started to study with Kempff regularly. It is only later that I studied with Alfred Cortot for two years shortly before his death. Strangely, these three great personalities had many things in common. Their priority was a great feeling of humility in front of the music of the great masters and the seriousness and depth of their devotion to music. They were perfectionists and would not tolerate any concession.

Q. How is musical education and training today compared with your days as a student in the 1950s?

I.B. There is more tolerance. One can discuss more openly with the teacher. The days when teachers were despots are over. The trouble now is in according too much freedom to students, which often goes against the real spirit of music, one loses certain basic rules without which there is the danger of anarchic interpretations. The musical texts should ideally be followed. For the sake of originality some interpreters abandon the composer’s text and replace it with their own.

Q. Recordings have played a large part in your career. How does a pianist prepare for the process of recording a complete cycle of works (as you have for Chopin, Brahms and Rachmaninov) as opposed to preparing for a recital or concert.

I.B. It is a wonderful opportunity to record the complete works of a composer for one really then knows every side of the personality. To realise such a recording project requires lot of concentration, reading books and articles about the composer’s life, works, analysis of the compositions. It is also important to know well the social and political history as well as the philosophical and artistic currents of the times when the composer lived and created the works. Through all this one tries to gain a better understanding of the visible and invisible influences on the composer. Also it is important to listen to recordings of the works of the composer by other pianists, especially those who lived closer to the period in which the composer lived and those who studied with the composer or his students. In rare occasions, like with the works of Rachmaninov, one can also listen to the composer’s own performances. Books about the teachings of the composer are also very important. For example a book by the eminent musicologist Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger about the teachings of Chopin as described by his students was very valuable to me while recording the complete works of Chopin. Complete works’ recording therefore is a full time job and requires a total dedication. On the other hand, there is not much difference between playing in concert and recording in a studio. There may be more freedom at a concert but ideally this feeling should also be created in studio recordings