I decided to take the plunge into the Idil Biret archive edition (this is Vol. 11) because it includes the 1958 world premiere of Adnan Saygun’s First Piano Concerto, conducted by the composer, no less. My readers know that I’ve been generally impressed by Saygun’s music, but I have to say that the first movement of this concerto really turns me off. It’s just a lot of sour-sounding, atonal pounding for the most part, very aggressive, built around harsh, clashing harmonies and a pounding if irregular rhythm. I do like the surprisingly tranquil Andante con moto, with its sparse orchestration and slow, almost Satie-like melodic construction, but in the finale we again return to pounding rhythms and brutal harmonies.
We then get Saygun’s 12 Preludes in Aksak Rhythms, which Biret plays with remarkable sensitivity but also with great vitality. Unfortunately, the music isn’t that much different from the concerto: less noisy (no brass or percussion), but no less harsh or ugly. Most of these pieces run two and a half minutes or less, but to me they all sound longer than five minutes. Following this is the Françaix sonata, all eight minutes of it, dedicated to Biret and recorded the same year it was written (1960). Despite the early year, this is in stereo, and the clearer sound allows us to hear Biret’s remarkable touch and tone. She has a lot of fun with this piece, and it shows. Alkan’s Le Chemin de fer was recorded in Katowice, Poland, in 1998, and here Biret is really in her element. She has no problems at all with the thorny technical challenges of the piece, and in fact makes the middle section sing out beautifully. I would rate her Alkan playing alongside that of Marc-André Hamelin for both pyrotechnical brilliance and musicality. Much the same can be said of Balakirev’s Islamey, a pert piece driven by an ostinato motor rhythm, and right up Biret’s alley.
My general impression of Biret is of an energetic virtuoso who plays with fine styling and very little pedal, but not very much in the way of an inner feeling for the music. In short, she is a lot like the late Friedrich Gulda, which isn’t bad at all.