Uneven Debussy From Idil Biret

Review by: Jed Distler


Artistic Quality: 6

Sound Quality: 7

One noticeable characteristic of what appears to be the first installment of a Debussy cycle from pianist Idil Biret is the close-up, full-bodied engineering–a far cry from Debussy’s oft-quoted “piano without hammers” paradigm. The sonics convey an impression that Biret never plays softly.

For the most part, both books of Images go well. Biret may not match Michelangeli’s micro-levels of tonal application, but seasoned pros would be happy to claim her fluidity and sensitivity throughout Reflets dans l’eau and Hommage à Rameau. By contrast, Mouvements is clunky and square, while the first two Images Book II selections lack the last degree of textural transparency. Biret’s spare pedaling renders the Poissons d’or as fish out of water, but at least her dry phrasing never turns percussive, while La plus que lente transpires with expansive, old-school rubatos.

Although Etude No. 1 is dry and dynamically undifferentiated, I admire the assured symmetry of Biret’s five-finger scales. The shapely flow of No. 2’s relentless thirds and No. 4’s sexy sixths, plus Biret’s brisk and supple way with No. 6’s rapid eight-finger figurations all are worth noting. While Biret labors a bit over No. 9’s repeated notes, her capricious phrasing in No. 11 totally befits the music’s sudden mood shifts. All the more reason why her heavy-handed, lifeless treatment of No. 10 utterly baffles. In terms of the text, Biret plays an E-flat instead of an E-natural in measure 8, and plays F-sharp as F-natural in the chords marking the downbeats of measures 26 and 28, consequently rendering these chords as D minor seventh instead of D seventh. Unless Biret is following an edition unknown to me, these are curious misreadings.

Her capable yet basically arid Suite bergamasque and Pour le piano compete with decades worth of superior editions, although the former’s Sarabande stands out for superb legato chord playing. I suspect that L’isle joyeuse’s swirling rhythms bog down to ensure accuracy. The first book of Préludes also prove alarmingly uneven. Danseuses de Delphes becomes slower and heavier as it unfolds, yet Biret keeps Voiles textural layering alive and afloat. The airless acoustic compromises Le vent dans la plaine’s bristling aura, but by playing Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir straight, Biret brings out the music’s dance roots. Again, the close microphone placement grossly amplifies the hushed shimmer characterizing Des pas sur la neige and La cathédrale engloutie.

To play Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest with minimum pedal and maximum digital prowess is to mistake Debussy’s turbulent jet streams for a dust storm. And while Biret expertly taps into Minstrels’ cake-walking idiom, La danse de Puck’s lilting choreography comes off stiff and arthritic. It’s amazing how Biret continues to record prolifically in her late 70s, yet perhaps not surprising that her artistry remains unpredictable.

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Recording Details:

Album Title: Idil Biret Solo Edition 10/11
Reference Recording: Images: Michelangeli (DG); Etudes: Uchida (Decca), Suite bergamasque: Bavouzet (Chandos); Pour le piano: Moravec (Supraphon), Preludes Book I: Osborne (Hyperion)

    Images Books I & II; La plus que lente; Etudes Books I & II; Suite bergamasque; Pour le piano; L’isle joyeuse; Preludes Book I
  • Idil Biret (piano)
  • IBA - 8 571401 02
  • CD

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