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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Quintet in F minor, op 34 [40:59]
Idil Biret (piano)
London String Quartet (Carl Pini, Benedict Cruft (violins); Ruşen Güneş (viola); Roger Smith (cello))
rec. London, January 1980
Idil Biret Archive Edition - Vol. 18
NAXOS 8.571320 [40:59]

Idil Biret is a Turkish pianist, born in 1942. Beginning as a child prodigy, she has enjoyed a long career, performing widely in prestigious venues, and recording many of the classics of the piano literature. She is also something of a puzzle.

Biret is loved by some, and disliked with considerable intensity by others. In 2004 Naxos celebrated the sale of her two millionth disc. A search for her work on Presto brings up an astonishing 221 recordings. This is far behind the microphone-loving Sviatoslav Richter’s 367, but after all, he is Richter. She has more recordings than Maurizio Pollini’s 140, and surpasses her mentor, Wilhelm Kempff, at 183.

Biret’s high numbers are achieved in part by Naxos including her tracks on such composite discs as “Chill with Rachmaninov”, “Classics at the Movies: War” or “Winter Daydreams”. Yet her catalogue includes most if not all of the works of Chopin and Brahms, in addition to more adventuresome fare, such as Ligeti, Boulez and Hindemith. She has recorded Brahms' cadenzas for concertos by Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, as well as her own transcriptions of Brahms' symphonies. So her work is by no means all popular classics by the fireside.

The Brahms Piano Quintet is in a series, the “Idil Biret Archive”, which is described as a project to present Biret’s entire recorded oeuvre. Apparently someone thinks that there is not yet enough Biret available. Is a subvention in play here? Or does Naxos simply regard her as a bargain? The explanation for this phenomenon is not obvious. In any event, more will follow. I hope subsequent releases will be more appealing.

This is an adequate, but unexceptional performance. The final movement is a bit plodding. Unfortunately the recording is disfigured by very poor sound, bad enough that it feels as if one is listening through an aural haze. On other recordings, Biret’s playing is often energetic, but in this instance the dynamics of the performance are flattened out, leaving too much to the listener’s imagination. The recording also favours the piano, which does not flatter the contributions of the London String Quartet.

It is hard to envision who might want this recording. There are simply too many outstanding versions available for this to be competitive. Superior in every respect are two of my favourites, Stephen Hough and the Takács Quartet on Hyperion, or Leif Ove Andsnes and the Artemis Quartet on Virgin.

The Biret recording was made in 1980 but that does not explain its dismal sound quality. Naxos claims that it has been digital re-mastered, which makes one shudder at the thought of what the original must have been like. For a version of the Brahms Piano Quintet from the same era that is much better recorded and is played with real excitement, try the Janáček String Quartet with Eva Bernatova, available as a DG download. It crackles where this one wheezes along.

After complaining about this disc’s poor quality, it seems churlish to grumble also about its short timing (“the food was horrible and the portions were tiny, too!”). Almost all recordings of the Brahms Piano Quintet include another work. Heaven knows, Biret has lots of items in her catalogue which might have filled out the disc.

Richard Kraus



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