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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Images Book 1 (1901-1905) [16:28]
Images Book 2 (1907) [13:49]
La plus que lente (1910) [4:02]
Études Books 1 & 2 (1915) [44:36]
Suite Bergamasque (1890, rev.1905) [18:10]
Pour le piano (1894-1901) [12:52]
L’isle joyeuse (1903-1904) [6:41]
Préludes Book 1 (1909-1910) [41:26]
Idil Biret (piano)
rec. 2018/19, Chateau de Flawinne, Namur, Belgium
IDIL BIRET ARCHIVE 8.571401-02 [79:05+79:09]

A few biographical notes about Idil Biret may be of interest. She was born in Ankara, Turkey in 1941. Taking to the piano at early age, she later studied at the Paris Conservatoire under the redoubtable Nadia Boulanger. She took further lessons with Alfred Cortot. Her career as a soloist began when she was sixteen. This led to appearances at many of the most important concert and recital venues around the world. Over the years, Biret has played concerted music with major orchestras including the Boston Symphony, Leningrad Philharmonic, Leipzig Gewandhaus, London Symphony, Warsaw Philharmonic. Another facet of Biret’s achievement is her jury membership on several international piano competitions. Idil Biret has won many awards, including the French Chevalier de l’Ordre National du Mérite and the State Artist distinction in Turkey.

The range of Biret’s repertoire, both recorded and in recital, is immense. This includes massive projects such as the first recording of all nine Beethoven Symphonies transcribed for piano by Franz Liszt. There are complete cycles of piano music by Rachmaninov, Chopin and Brahms for the Naxos label. Twentieth-century music, including Pierre Boulez’s three Sonatas and Ligeti’s Études, add considerable depth to her repertoire. Finally, I looked at Idil Biret’s website. There seem to be several blind links, and some updating to do.

There is no doubt that Idil Biret has made a major contribution to recorded music. In fact, there are more than 80 LPs and CDs, released on some ten record labels from around the world. They include Decca, EMI, Atlantic (Warner) and most notably Naxos. Over and above these commercial albums, there is a wealth of recordings made for television and radio. I understand that the Idil Biret Archive was created in 2002 with the intention of preserving as much of her recorded legacy as possible, and to make it widely available. The advertising blurb explains that as copyrights are obtained on older recordings, they are being remastered and rereleased on new CDs. Furthermore, much of her more recent recital work is being issued for the first time (including the present CD set). The charming emblem used as the trademark for this series utilises an engraving of an angel by the versatile fifteenth-century German artist Albrecht Dürer. It was given to the pianist by the great French composer, conductor and teacher Nadia Boulanger. It was inscribed: ‘To my little Idil. Christmas 1959. May the Angel protect her on the beautiful and dangerous path she has engaged herself in. With all my heart.’

Let me turn to the present release. This two-CD album features a good cross-section of Claude Debussy’s music. I do not wish to examine each number in detail. I will look at what were for me the highlights.

Debussy’s two books of Préludes were some of the first ‘modern’ piano music that I discovered as a teenager. When hearing a new recording of Book 1, I always listen to three to make my initial judgement. First up is the pot boiler, The Girl with the Flaxen Hair. Does the playing exhibit delicacy and flexible rhythms? And does it make me think of rare hot Scottish summer’s days? (The literary background of this Prélude is a Scottish girl.) Then, I listen to The Dance of Puck. Does this piece create a supernatural will o’ the wisp atmosphere, complete with mischievous rhythms and delicate figurations? Finally, does Voiles (Sails) conjure up the Mediterranean, sailing boats and blue skies, viewed from Monte Carlo on a warm evening? Does it have a well-contrived legato? If all these things are present and correct, the playing passes my test. And in Idil Biret’s recording of Book 1 of the Préludes it certainly does.

Debussy was inordinately proud of his Images. He wrote: “I think that I may say without undue pride, that I believe these pieces will live and will take their place in piano literature, either to the left of Schumann…or the right of Chopin.” Despite a wee lack of modesty, how correct he was! I have long thought that the opening number, Reflets dans l’eau, is one of the masterpieces of piano music. Maurice Hinson writes that Reflets requires “complete facility” to express the “cascading arpeggios and sweeping figurations”. Also necessary is a delicate touch and careful timing. Idil Biret achieves this goal. The other Images are equally well played here. Hommage à Rameau displays a timeless beauty and poise, whereas the final number in Book 1 (1904-1905), Mouvement, is a demanding moto perpetuo giving a mood of joviality and exuberance. I think that Biret gives this last piece a slightly more introspective presentation than I would have expected.

Book 2 is equally replete with audio/visual charms. Cloches à travers les feuilles (Bells through the leaves) is misty and unfocused, whilst Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut (And the moon descends on the [ruined?] temple that was) is full of Oriental sounds. For myself, the sensuous Poissons d’or is the highlight. Hinson notes the “floating melodies in thirds, fluid arpeggios and delicate pp passages”. It is a sheer delight.

The Suite Bergamasque has long been a favourite of mine; the hackneyed but beautiful Clair de lune’ always creates pure magic for me. Biret gives an excellent performance with unambiguous textures and fluid part-work. It is perfectly paced with no rush. The alchemy is there for me. The other three movements are beyond reproach too.

A lovely account is given of the less-typically Debussian La plus que lente with its popular sounding waltz theme. It is played with charm and a backward glance to nineteenth century café life in Budapest, where the composer was inspired to write this piece. The technically demanding L’isle joyeuse is simply stunning in its musical postcard portrayal of Jersey in the Channel Island, or maybe the mythical Isle of Cythera…? I enjoyed Pour le piano with its tumbling Prelude. The Sarabande indeed evokes “an old portrait in the Louvre” (Debussy’s own suggestion), and the closing Toccata nods to the classical world of Scarlatti.

Perhaps the most eye-opening work on this CD are the Études, Books 1 & 2. There is a rumour amongst some enthusiasts that these pieces are “dry, abstract and annoying”. As a result, they have seldom featured in recitals and relatively rarely in recordings. As proof, there are currently more than a hundred recordings of Images Book 1, and almost a hundred versions of the Préludes Book 1 in the Arkiv catalogue alone – but only seventeen of Book 1 of the Études.

Clearly, these studies are challenging. Each one explores a different technical challenge, such as double thirds and octaves. The mood varies from the sublime to the ferocious. Debussy himself remarked that the Études must serve as “a useful warning to pianists not to take up the musical profession unless they have remarkable hands”. Idil Biret has met the challenge. I enjoyed her exploration of these pieces. But, over and above, she has convinced me that the Études are a work of art, rather than simply a pedantic exercise book.

Idil Biret’s survey of Debussy’s piano music was recorded relatively recently in 2018 and early 2019. It clearly represents here mature thoughts on this music. I enjoyed this recital immensely. It gave me insights into some of these works that has eluded me for near half a century. All fans of Debussy’s piano music will have their favourite performers of these pieces but Idil Biret’s account is as good as it gets. I was inspired, moved and entertained whilst listening to this excellent recording: what more can one ask?

John France

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