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Seen and Heard International Recital Review


20th-Century Piano Music in Recital Idil Biret (piano), Paul C. Empie Theatre, Baker Center for the Arts, Allentown, Pennsylvania, November 14, 2004 (BJ)

Bartók: Two Elegies
Saygun: Six Preludes
Ligeti: Three Etudes
Prokofiev: Sonata No. 2
Ravel: Gaspard de la nuit
Stravinsky: selections from L’Oiseau de feu (arr. Biret)

The campus of Muhlenberg College in Allentown, 50 miles north of Philadelphia, may not sound to the uninitiated like a major center on the international musical map, but it was where you needed to be on Sunday November 14 if you are a lover of transcendental piano-playing. Idil Biret, the great Turkish pianist, gave a recital devoted entirely to 20th-century works (including one by her compatriot Ahmet Adnan Saygun that was written for her), and demonstrated in this perhaps surprising context the true meaning of the word “virtuosity”: not flashy superficiality, but simply a technical command so complete that the performer can as it were take the solution of problems for granted and concentrate entirely on musical issues.

Rather like the Czech master Ivan Moravec, Ms Biret is familiar to fewer listeners than ought to know her, though her integral recordings of the piano music of Brahms, Chopin, and Rachmaninoff have brought her some world-wide celebrity. But she is a pianist and a musician of the very first rank, and in this thoughtfully planned program she was at her best. After decades on the concert scene, she shows a constantly deepening insight into the core of the music she plays, without any sign of a decline in those formidable technical powers.

I had heard her play Gaspard de la nuit before, so I was prepared for the sovereign calm she brought to Ondine, the iron control of her Le gibet, and the dark vehemence of her Scarbo. Saygun’s set of Preludes offered a beguiling array of jerky rhythms and quirky dynamics, expertly brought off, and the Bartók Elegies afforded scope alike for brooding introspection and an almost Lisztian grandeur of rhetoric. But what, for me, was truly surprising was how well Ligeti stood up in this company. Though I love his Horn Trio, some of Ligeti’s music (especially that grinning horror of an expressionist grotesque, Le Grand macabre) has in the past sent me hurrying prematurely to the exits. So it was a particular pleasure to encounter him in the rich and thoroughly persuasive vein of the three preludes Ms Biret had chosen (Der Zauberlehrling, Cordes à vide, and Automne à Varsovie), with their highly individual but blessedly uneccentric materials, textures, and formal methods. As Donald Tovey argued in his essay on normality and freedom in music, the former quality is more important than the latter, and it is indeed a necessary prerequisite if freedom is to have any meaning.

Heard immediately after these three small masterpieces, the Prokofiev Second Sonata inevitably sounded almost like the product of a minor composer. Superb as her performance was, Ms Biret was unable to disguise the thinness of the work’s inspiration–its invention formulaic, its textures often clotted, its rhythms repetitively foursquare, its harmonic procedures veering between the conventional and the merely arbitrary, and its finale adding up to little more than one damn thing after another. Fortunately, the magnificent Ravel was still to come, followed by a feast of color in the shape of the pianist’s effective version of movements from Firebird, so that the sense of mastery in composition as well as performance was the impression left with a warmly responsive audience. If 20th-century music were always performed like this, it would surely not suffer from the hearer-unfriendly reputation that still too often bedevils it.

Bernard Jacobson

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