Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.54 (1845) [33:29]
Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16 (1868) [31:31]
Idil Biret (piano)
Bilkent Symphony Orchestra/Antoni Wit
rec. Bilkent Symphony Hall, Ankara, November 2006
Idil Biret Concerto Edition - 1
IBA/BMP 8.571270 [65:00]

The order number of this album might suggest a run-of-the-mill Naxos issue; so might the presence of conductor Antoni Wit, one of that label's mainstays. But the origins of this release are more complex. It's actually a co-production of the Idil Biret Archive (IBA), devoted to assembling and releasing the recordings of that Turkish pianist, and the BMP imprint of Bilkent University, home of the present orchestra, the Bilkent Symphony. HNH Records, Naxos's parent company, is handling distribution.

The veteran Biret, in these performances, concentrates on making the passagework really tell, etching the notes starkly and vividly. Playing "all the notes" is the virtuoso's stock in trade; but here the purpose of those notes within the larger-scale musical design is highlighted. In the dancing figurations in the first movement of the Grieg, for example, she makes a point of striking the indicated accents crisply, while maintaining the line's forward impulse. In Schumann's finale, the scalework leading into the second subject is sufficiently firm that the orchestral pickups can dovetail with it precisely - impressive, after numerous more-or-less approximate renderings of that transition.

In her pursuit of clarity, Biret favors more measured tempi than most in the outer movements of the Schumann. They're not really "too slow," though the first movement occasionally seems so, because of her sometimes square, even accentuations and austere pedalling of the rippling accompaniments. The finale, on the other hand, acquires a stately dimension lacking in the usual bounding romp. The tempi in the Grieg hew more closely to convention, though with an added measure of breadth -- the soloist is clearly determined not to be too casual!

Biret also has a nice feel for the ebb and flow of the lyric lines, shaping them sensitively with a natural, spontaneous-sounding rubato, but they point up an unexpected technical shortcoming. While she brings a pearly, attractive tone to soft passages, she can't seem to expand it comfortably. Time and again, the peak note of a phrase will harden unpleasantly, where I suspect she's trying to make it bloom and expand. The chordal passages ring out more freely - Biret gets some arm weight behind them - but that at the start of the Schumann, even so, remains a touch clangorous.

Once again, Antoni Wit proves adept at getting a lower-tier orchestra - here, the Bilkent Symphony - to play with warm, polished tone and expressive involvement. And he knows how to use orchestral emphases to mitigate, or perhaps obscure, Biret's sometimes hard tone, as in the opening paragraph of Schumann's Intermezzo movement. The sound offers both warmth and clarity.

Assuming you're still in the market for these warhorses, if you want beguiling tone at every moment, you must seek out Radu Lupu's Decca coupling - where André Previn and the LSO provide rich support - or hunt down Artur Rubinstein's recordings on separate Sony/BMG (originally RCA) programs. Devotees of Biret, and other "explorers," however, will find much to enjoy here.

Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.

see also review by John Sheppard

There’s much to enjoy here.