First up at the 2004 Singapore International Piano Festival, Idil Biret chose an eclectic program that sandwiched a rich filling of virtuoso works between comparatively thin slices of arrangements and transcriptions. Her considerable skill and sensitivity captured the essence of the diverse offerings, but the evening’s most satisfying moments emerged from the instrument-specific compositions.
The opening trio of Bach provided Biret with ample opportunity to display her wide variety of attacks and shadings. The “Siciliano” from the Flute Sonata immediately raised the hope that Jean-Pierre Rampal might descend and deliver the liquid gold melody or even Moe Koffman would resurrect the famous air and improvise on it to the double bar, but we settled for a fusion of memories past and the arid present.
A shimmer of recognition came as one from the large audience as the timeless “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” was drawn from the keys only to have its marvellous inner voices relegated to the distant background, all hampered by an approach that was too vertical by half.
The Chorale Prelude suffered from a somewhat stilted rather than flowing legato and lacked overall direction. The disconnect between the dominant line and its magical embellishments produced more unease than sturdy belief.
Despite the fact that Stravinsky himself transcribed The Firebird (the multitude of versions having more to do with copyright abuses than artistic reworking), the audience was put at a double disadvantage because this masterpiece was conceived for and certainly requires dancers, sets and lighting to reveal its abundant treasures. Instead, we were treated to a stunning display of pianistic artistry, but, like the instrument itself, even that was confined to mere black-and-white components rather than the full spectrum of colour and emotions which pack the original.
With such a huge repertoire under her fingers, more’s the pity that Biret didn’t reach into her formidable mastery of, say, Brahms (e.g., Variations on a Theme by Schumann brilliantly rendered in her 1991 recording—Naxos 8.550350) for the final entry of the night.
The readings of Rachmaninov’s Études-Tableaux proved to be much more satisfying. Here, Biret used her relaxed flexibility to push and pull the lines at will. The balance between ideas and accompaniments was exceptional, particularly the second with its menacing hint of Berlioz and near-quote of Brahms’ Second Symphony producing global art years ahead of its time.
Ligeti’s Études were, in many ways, the highlight of the recital. Biret went far beyond the notes and plumbed brilliance from every bar. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was notable as the opening insistence morphed seamlessly into jazzy relief before cascades of “potions” showered all over the keyboard then disappeared into the night. The eerie “Open Strings” was unforgettable; its melodic punches made their way through the heady ambiguity of perfect fifths, only to erupt in the middle section before easing back to earth in stunning slow motion.
The dissonant desperation of “Autumn in Warsaw” demonstrated Biret’s magnificent control and ability to paint emotional landscapes that employ the notes as mere tools.
Well known as a master exponent of Chopin, Biret closed out the first half of the concert with a mini-survey of his music. Her ability to shape the melodies, let them soar or hush as required was a constant delight. Only a touch more care and breath in the changes of register could improve the spectacular result. Special mention must be made of the G-flat Major Impromptu, which Biret seems to own (her Naxos recording—8.554538, from the complete Chopin piano music series is a “must have” for the serious collector). Its intriguingly vague declamation and exceptional left-hand control would be difficult for anyone to surpass.
Finally, the Op. 23 Ballade, despite being delivered more with anger than anguish, confirmed once again that Biret offers exceptional insight and feeling into the world’s piano literature. JWR