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The Beethoven Piano Sonata Series: Idil Biret and Andras Schiff - Sonatas 1, 2, 19, 20

C. Michael Bailey By

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Turkish pianist Idil Biret (b. 1941) has been a household name at a number of record labels, most notably EMI and Naxos. A student of Nadia Boulanger and Alfred Cortot, Biret is steeped in the Romantic piano tradition, being known particularly for her Chopin and Brahms. She has recently formed the Idil Biret Archives (IBA) to make available through Naxos a majority of her back catalog and recently recorded, but unreleased performances. The cornerstone of the IBA presently is Biret's set of Liszt transcriptions of Beethoven's symphonies, originally recorded and released on EMI in the mid-1980s. Over the next several months, Biret will flesh out her Beethoven series with new and old recordings, completing what promises to be a grand set of Beethoven piano music.

Andras Schiff (b. 1953) made a name for himself in between the 1980s and 2000s by working his way through the complete keyboard catalogs of J.S. Bach and Mozart. Most impressive is his complete recording of the Mozart piano concertos with the Salzburg Mozarteum Camerata Academica, directed by the late Sandor Vegh on Decca. Schiff has recently completed his survey of Beethoven's piano sonatas for ECM where he recorded the pieces (the initial seven volumes), in order, as live performances in the Tonhalle Zurich before a very well behaved audience. The final volume was recorded in the empty hall of the Reitstadel in Neumarkt, Germany.

Where Biret approaches her Beethoven from the Romantic side of Brahms and Liszt, Schiff approaches his from the Classical side of Haydn and Mozart, providing a keen contrast in performance styles and mores. Both pianists have recorded much Beethoven before and come to these pieces seasoned and well-versed. The early Beethoven sonatas brim with Classical vitality difficult to temper with a Brahmsian flair. It should be interesting to hear where the old school Romantic meets the new school traditionalist during their common pilgrimage to Beethoven.

width=140Idil Biret

Idil Biret Beethoven Edition, Vol. 1: Piano Sonatas, Vol. 1, Nos. 1, 2, 19, 20



The first release of Idil Berit's Beethoven Edition assembles the composer's first two piano sonatas and couples them with sonatas 19 and 20. The pairing is appropriate as the two latter sonatas are known as Beethoven's Leichte Sonaten ("Easy Sonatas") and are thought to have been composed around the time of his third and fourth piano sonatas, but not published until 1805. The quartet of sonatas offers a good example of early Beethoven in the hands of a master Romantic. Biret performs these pieces with an authority that recalls Vladimir Horowitz and Sviatoslav Richter, if not Richter's fellow Ukrainian Emil Gilels. This authority brims with technical competence and musical telepathy that presents the pieces with a regimented, yet appealing, beauty.

Biret lights the first sonata's (in F minor, Op. 2, No. 1) opening Mannheim rocket with a Molotov cocktail, detonating its energy and prerogative right off the mark. The notes march a determined course with an equally determined momentum that is almost militant. Given the F minor key, Biret plays the allegro as almost a march. The adagio is delicately cast as a brass monolith, not lacking warmth but giving none away. The A major sonata, Op. 2, No. 2 is bright and good natured, both characteristics well represented in Biret's performance of all four of the included sonatas. She often gives her left hand tonal authority over her right, further justifying her comparison with Horowitz.

Her performances of sonatas 19 and 20 are equally authoritative if not more spare and austere, particularly in the slower sections. This is playing that shows off experience and confidence. Originally written as piano exercises for Beethoven's family and friends, Biret infuses the Leichte Sonaten with equal importance and stature with their contemporaries, giving them a durable romantic varnishing. This inauguration of Biret's Beethoven sonata set suggests that an important Beethoven renaissance is underway.

width=140Andras Schiff

Ludwig van Beethoven: The Piano Sonatas, Vol. I, Nos. 1, 2, 3, 4 and Ludwig van Beethoven: The Piano Sonatas, Vol. III, Nos. 19, 20, 9, 10, 11

ECM Records


Hungarian Andras Schiff has been working up to his complete recording of the Beethoven sonatas for a number of years. Having surveyed a goodly number of Beethoven's piano sonatas for Decca in the 1980s and 1990s, Schiff returned to and plowed through all of the sonatas in a series of live performances which were recorded. There is precedence for this musical double duty in Schiff's reconsideration of Bach's Goldberg Variations for ECM (2001) ten years after his 1990 set on Decca. All of the Baroque and Classical preparation Schiff has accomplished before taking on the Beethoven 32 has paid off in splendidly transparent performances of the sonatas.

Where Biret opts to evoke thunder in these early sonatas, Schiff tries to tease out gentle delicacy. In the opening movements of the first and second sonatas, Schiff sets into direction a docile momentum where the notes manifest spherically, one after another. Schiff's touch is light, avoiding to tight a grasp on the music. Schiff allows the sonatas to breath as Beethoven's breathes. Sonatas 19 and 20 sound perfectly in perspective, short and brisk. Clocking in at about eight minutes each, these tutorials are rendered by Schiff as fine art, deserving an equal footing with the remainder of Beethoven's piano sonata corpus. The pieces play like high functioning incidental music that is to be considered and enjoyed.

Uniformly, Schiff's performance errs on the side of Classicism, emoting more Haydn than Brahms. His playing is sensitive and tidy. Coupled with his light touch and informed scholarship, Schiff enables himself to act a musical conduit, conveying the Beethoven in Beethoven. The Tonhalle sonics coupled with ECM's impeccable engineering produces a sonorous presence, placing the piano front and center for powerful effect. In middle age, Schiff reveals himself to be a superb Beethoven interpreter.

An overview of the Piano Sonatas may be found in The Beethoven Piano Sonata Series: Introduction.

Tracks and Personnel

Idil Biret

Tracks: Sonata No.1 F Minor Op.2 No.1: Allegro, Adagio, Menuetto, Allegretto, Prestissimo; Sonata No.2 A Major Op.2 No.2: Allegro Vivace, Largo Appassionato, Scherzo. Allegretto, Rondo. Grazioso; Sonata No.19 G Minor Op.49/1: Andante, Rondo. Allegro; Sonata No. 20 G Major Op. 49/2: Allegro, Ma Non Troppo, Tempo Di Menuetto.

Personnel: Idil Biret: piano.

Andras Schiff

Tracks: Sonata No.1 F Minor Op.2 No.1: Allegro, Adagio, Menuetto, Allegretto, Prestissimo; Sonata No.2 A Major Op.2 No.2: Allegro Vivace, Largo Appassionato, Scherzo. Allegretto, Rondo. Grazioso; Sonata No.19 G Minor Op.49/1: Andante, Rondo. Allegro; Sonata No.20 G Major Op.49/2: Allegro, Ma Non Troppo, Tempo Di Menuetto.

Personnel: Andras Schiff: piano.


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