Biret Plays Turkish Piano Classics

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BEST OF TURKISH PIANO MUSIC / CD 1: SAYGUN: Piano Concerto No. 1 / Concerts Colonne Orch.; Ahmet Adnun Saygun, cond (live: Brussels, August 8, 1958) / 12 Preludes on Aksak Rhythms: Nos. I-VI. IŞIKÖZLÜ: Piano Concerto No. 1 / Ízmir State Symphony Orch.; Rengim Gökmen, cond (live: 2000) / Ballade, Op. 11. M. SUN: Country Colors, Book II: 3 Pieces for Piano.

CD 2: ERKIN: Piano Concerto / Presidential Symphony Orch.; Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, cond / Piano Sonata. KODALLI: Ostinato – 5 Pieces for Children. USMANBAŞ: 6 Preludes. MÍMAROĞLU: Session.

CD 3: REY: Variation on an Istanbul Song, “Kâtibim” / Munich Radio Orch., Hikmet Şimşek, cond (live, 1981) / PARŞ: Piano Concerto No. 1 / Antalya State Symphony Orch.; Burak Tüzün, cond (live: Antalya, 2015) / Viola Sonata / Ruşen Güneş, vla (live: Ankara, 2011)

CD 4: FIRAT: 6 Movements for Piano. A Tribute to Franz Liszt. LISZT: Grand March for Sultan Abdülmecid (paraphrase on a march by Donizetti) / Ídil Biret, pno on all tracks / IBA (Idil Biret Archive) 8.504058

Turkish pianist Ídil Biret—whose last name, I’ve discovered, is pronounced Bir-ette and not Bir-ay in the French style—was a child prodigy and one of the few super-virtuoso pianists in a class with György Cziffra, Martha Argerich and Marc-André Hamelin, and like them she has a tendency to play music on the emotional surface. Mind you, she has some extraordinary qualities, such as the ability to play her entire repertoire from memory without needing a score in performance, and she does not just stick to playing the Established Classics but, in addition to all the 20th-century Turkish music presented in this collection, also includes Castiglioni, Boulez, Schoenberg and Ligeti in her repertoire.

Back in the 1980s, when Naxos was still a small, emerging record company, the two made contact. I’m not certain who initiated this, but the upshot was that Biret would make new, original recordings for the label, among which is a set of Chopin’s complete piano music, in exchange for Naxos issuing and reissuing her own archive of live and studio recordings made over a period of 40+ years. The recordings on this present set have been released previously in a 15-CD set, but this is the first time that all the Turkish music has been sifted from the rest of her repertoire and released as a separate entity.

Although I tend to find her performances of standard repertoire correctly played in terms of tempo, phrasing and dynamics but always from the outside emotionally, there is no question but that Biret has chops to spare and, in the case of music from her own country, should be considered the last word. She knew all of the composers listed above who were still alive from the earliest days of her career (she played a private concert for the Turkish President in 1947, making her official debut in 1948 at age seven) and, as one can see from the credits for the Saygun Piano Concerto, the composer conducted that performance.

As usual, Biret’s playing is crisp, powerful and highly musical in terms of phrasing, yet despite the fact that she studied in her teens with Alfred Cortot and Wilhelm Kempff, she often lacks their feeling of warmth and inner connection to the scores, especially in slow movements. Nonetheless, the often visceral excitement of Turkish music is right up her alley, and she plays all of these works very well indeed.

It’s almost sad, when listening to this set, to consider that at one time Turkey was a country open to both its own culture and that of the West in addition to being one of the very rare Muslim countries to allow the open practice of Judaism and Christianity. Modern-day Turkey has become yet another viciously racist and culturally inbred country in which Western ideas are often rejected and both Jews and Christians suffer prejudice and frequent attacks.

Once past the Saygun concerto, which has very rough radio sound (and one moment in the first movement where the tape slipped, causing a momentary flatness of pitch), the sound quality improves greatly, and one is better able to catch some of the subtleties that Biret uses in her playing. Interestingly, Saygun’s Preludes on Aksak Rhythms have a certain Ligeti-like quality about them, though his sense of melodic construction is stronger, not relying so much on just the spatial relationship of notes and their sonorities. In prelude No. 5, titled “Pesante,” there’s a certain earthy, folk-like quality to the rhythms, which Biret captures perfectly.

The piano concerto of Çetin Işiközlü is much more Eastern in both his melodic content and harmonic structure though these elements are poured into a Western sense of construction. I found this piece utterly fascinating for its cultural balancing act as well as for its highly imaginative structure and form. At just before the four-minute mark, Işiközlü switches from slow, almost menacing music to a sort of slow march rhythm, but the minor modal harmonies make it sound equally ominous. This is one piece, and one composer, who evidently made only minor concessions to Western music in his pieces. His Ballade is almost violent-sounding, with sharp contrasts provided by the occasional slow sections, and in this piece Biret plays with excellent sensitivity to feeling. In the last section, there are some very tricky contrasting rhythms played by both hands against each other.

But if you think this sounds a bit “primitive” in feeling, wait until you hear Muhammer Sun’s Country Colors—3 Pieces for Piano. These are to some extend based on the early, savage music of Stravinsky, only with a Turkish twist. Ulvi Cemal Erkin’s Piano Concerto also has a somewhat savage sound, only in this case based at least in part on Western music though the harmonies sound entirely Middle Eastern. (Yet there seems to be something a bit amiss in the orchestra of this live performance; a few instruments sound flat to me, and I don’t think that’s how the music was written.) The cadenza, which begins around the six-minute mark in the first movement, sounds a little Hollywood-ish to me, but the rest of the composition is quite good. At 5:25 in the second movement, there is a theme reminiscent of Debussy’s La Mer, but it quickly changes into something else. The third movement is very fast and highly rhythmic in what sounds like a 6/8 rhythm, and in the fourth movement we move from a slow theme to a rapid Whirling Dervish sort of music—and all of it holds together and makes sense.

Nevit Kodalli’s Ostinato—5 Pieces for Children all have a strong, regular rhythm, but the bitonal harmonies made me raise my eyebrows a little…this is a bit spiky for kids to listen to, well, at least here in the United States. And the music is occasionally written a little more difficult than most children whose names aren’t Ídil Biret could manage…but they’re interesting pieces. No. 4, titled “The Sad Child,” definitely sounds like Russian music.

Erkin’s Piano Sonata has a somewhat savage feel to the music which is tremendously exciting, using open fourths  and fifths over a bitonal bass line in the first movement. In a piece like this, Biret’s super-virtuosity pays great dividends; it would be difficult to think of any pianist of any other nationality attacking the score with this much gusto.

Mímaroğlu’s Session is a bizarre piece, written for Biret’s recording session for Atlantic Records in 1976. One might be wondering what a pop and jazz label like Atlantic was doing recording a classical artist like Biret in the first place, but this is explained in the liner notes which tell us that, at the time, Mímaroğlu was a producer for Atlantic at the time. The piece opens with a male voice reading her recording contract right on the record. This narration, annoyingly, continues even as she plays the music, which is a ruminating piece in atonal harmony with some sort of weird electronic sounds in the background as well as a voice saying, “It’s wild, man. Too far out. You can’t dance to this, you know?…What about, ‘I Love Beethoven’? Does she practice transcendental meditation?” Eventually, an overproduced studio orchestra enters and overwhelms the sound space, but Biret returns, pounding away even louder than before. It’s difficult to say why this was even included on the set. I don’t find it witty or amusing, just plain dumb. Sadly, this seems to be the only recording of a piece by Mímaroğlu in the Biret archive; I did some digging online, but could not find anything else. I would much rather have had the remaining Saygun Preludes on Aksak Rhythms (Nos. 7-12) which she performed live in Ankara in the mid-1970s, which were indeed issued on IBA 8.571288 in 2011. (In fact, you can go to YouTube and either record the streaming audio or convert the videos to MP3 files for these last six Preludes and download them.)

Although he lived from 1904 to 1983, Cemal Reşít Rey began as a fairly conservative composer, one of his teachers being Gabriel Fauré, yet his Variations on an Istanbul Folk Song is quite varied stylistically, alternating between late-Romantic tonality and some truly bizarre orchestral sounds with modern harmonies. And this is quite a grand piece, too, lasting over 28 minutes. There’s even a solo for an alto saxophone (possibly the French influence) at around the 19-minute mark as the music becomes, to my ears anyway, somewhat jazz-inflected, and to my delight Biret handles the piano part beautifully in catching the feel of the swaggering syncopation.

By contrast, the piano concerto of Ateş Pars is uncompromisingly modern, which isn’t surprising when you realize that he was born in 1942 which makes him the youngest composer represented in this set. The music is fast and complex in terms of voicing and harmony but, at least in the first movement, static in harmony, staying in the same basic mode throughout. Indeed, the monoharmony continues into the second movement, which is played without a break. Generally speaking, I found this concerto to be an interesting exercise in creating an atonal moto perpetuo but, without much harmonic change, somewhat static. Pars’ Viola Sonata is, unfortunately, much of the same. He seems to be a “one-note Johnny” as a composer, stuck in his rhythmic rut with little imagination.

Fortunately, the fourth and last CD opens with the wonderful 6 Movements for Piano by Ertuğrul Firat (1923-2014) who, in addition to his activities as a composer, also had a professional law career as a judge! Although quite dense and modern harmonically, this is music that changes harmonies, tempi, mood and colors, and by God Biret attacks this music the way Raymond Lewenthal attacked Alkan, completely from the gut. Firat’s tribute to Liszt sounds very little like the famed Hungarian composer, but is an exceptionally difficult piano piece in the manner of Liszt…and of course, Biret has the chops to play it perfectly. (I think she might be able to play music perfectly in her sleep.) The tribute written by Liszt for Sultan Abdülmecid is typical of his bombastic style, based on some piece of trash by Donizetti and blown up into piano fireworks.

By and large, I came to appreciate Ídil Biret a bit more after hearing this entire set. I believe that her exciting-but-outward style of playing developed at least in part because she was weaned during her formative years on all of this modern Turkish music, most of which calls for exactly her strengths as a performer: blistering technique married to an outstanding legato, sensitivity to the marked dynamics, but not much more than that. Though I still find her performances of most Western music a bit cold, there can be no question but that her performances of Turkish music are nonpareil; just compare her version of Saygun’s 12 Preludes on Aksak Rhythms to anyone else’s, and you’ll hear how they pale by comparison. Thus I can recommend 98% of this set (all but the Mímaroğlu piece) without reservation. My next task is to listen to more of her recordings of modern Western music which was written in a similar vein to the Turkish.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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