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CD Review

Biret's Brahms

Idil Biret, piano
Polish National Radio Symphony (Katowice)/Antoni Wit
Naxos 8.554089
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I cannot tell you how many evenings of pleasure this recording has given me. From the opening duet between horn and piano I knew I was in for a special experience. After comparisons with other recordings I now rate this as the finest I have ever heard. My references include: Richter with Leinsdorf and the Chicago Symphony on RCA (nla), Moravic with Bĕlohlávek and the Czech Philharmonic on Supraphon, Gilels and Joachim with the Berlin Philharmonic on DG and Barenboim with Barbirolli and the Vienna Philharmonic on EMI Forte.

The orchestra is superb. The opening brings to mind Steinberg's story in his book The Concerto. "'Dream Mr. X,' I once heard a conductor say to his solo horn as they were about to begin a rehearsal of this concerto." (116) The author goes on to say that this soloist should be able to "muse".* The burnished horn player here made me think I was listening to the Vienna Philharmonic. I wish that Naxos had credited her/him as they did the solo cellist, Zdzislaw Lapinski. His (her?) playing offers other details that set this recording apart from the others.

The recording is simply the best of the lot. The main thing that strikes me is the perfect balance, or relief as Stokowski called it, between the orchestra and piano. In the other recordings the orchestra is distant, in the case of the Richter and Leinsdorf it sounds like the orchestra is out in the hall. Add to that the fact that the conductor is self effacing to the point where the music is dull. The Gilels is better balanced but still misses some details in the orchestra and Joachim, while not as mundane as Leinsdorf, always impressed me as not much more than a Kapellmeister beating time. The Czech Philharmonic is one of the finest in the world, but they are so distantly recorded that it would be hard to find evidence in this recording to support that assertion. Barbirolli turns in a fine orchestral performance but Barenboim seems to lumber his way through it, pounding the piano instead of playing it.

Just a word about the piano. This is the finest sounding piano of all of the ones I listened to. The instrument sounds "romantic" and full, in the other cases this is not the case. Now, the Gilels comes close to Biret's instrument… but is not as well recorded and doesn't sound as good. Okay… that was more than a word.

Biret clearly loves this music. Her interpretation is poetic and intense. Frequently I found myself doing the squinted face of approval as I listened… you know what I mean… She is not just playing the music she is making music. She gives me the feeling that she is exploring it much as I do when playing the guitar (Bob Dylan… not Segovia) Only Gilels comes close to offering the musical continuum that I hear in Biret's interpretation. Let me offer just one example of the feelings she generates. The second time the piano comes in at the very opening there is a pause in the playing. That pause, how the pianist holds the silence… a pregnant pause… is all important to the total picture. Too many times, as in Moravec*, the pianist lingers just a moment too long, breaking the tension. In Biret's hands (no pun intended) you truly understand the meaning of a "pregnant pause". While Gilels is good, too, he still doesn't deliver as many of the many facets of this music as does Biret.

Okay, now on to the Schumann. Every time I hear Schumann, especially next to Brahms, I know why Brahms was the better composer. Brahms' music is much more interesting, less repetitive. Sorry, but that is my feelings about the music and even Biret can't make it interesting to my ears.

* I have mentioned Steinberg's book in other reviews. I strongly recommend you get a copy. I don't read music and his book(s) really offer musical as well as biographical detail and insights.

* * Moravec is highly regarded by many people. I am not one of them. If Barenboim pounds on the keys, Moravec's touch is much too light. This is even a problem in his Debussy. The result, in this case, is boring.

Copyright © 2001, Robert Stumpf II