Idil Biret

Beethoven: Sonatas Nos. 8 "Pathétique" & 29 "Hammerklavier"

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AllMusic Review by James Manheim

Turkish pianist Idil Biret's Beethoven sonata cycle, issued on her own Idil Biret Archive label and distributed by the energetic Naxos, has gained strength as it has proceeded into Beethoven's famous and ambitious works, where Biret has genuinely new insights to offer. Here she offers an odd pair of sonatas that are rarely programmed together: the Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13, "Pathétique," and Piano Sonata No. 29 in B flat major, Op. 106, "Hammerklavier." In both, Biret offers her trademark deliberate, slowly developing readings that begin quietly and almost neutrally, accumulating small details as they go and assembling them into a motivically tightly knit structure. Biret is not the pianist you want to go to for the Beethoven that shakes his fist at fate, but there are plenty of other choices there. And indeed, you might not think of her as a first choice for the "Hammerklavier," a borderline unplayable work that almost seems to demand a maximum expenditure of sheer power. And this is just what makes her reading so compelling. Where other pianists push the tempo of the opening movement, Biret slows down enough to turn the half-step in the opening statements of the theme from a slight bit of color to a structurally important detail. The first movement in her "Hammerklavier" is rife with such details, and hers is perhaps the only version in which the movement emerges as a full counterpart to the giant, tragic slow movement and the final fugue. It's a rich, profoundly considered reading in which Biret can take a very daring step -- pushing the tempo in the contrapuntal complications toward the end -- and still have everything hang together. This is one of the definitive versions , perhaps the definitive version, of this sonata, so often considered a difficult work, but here absolutely compelling. The circumspect but intelligent "Pathétique," full of significant rhythmic touches in the left-hand part, is also well worth the listener's time. This album was not newly recorded for the series but dates from a recording made in Stuttgart in 1985 and issued in the U.S. on an arm of, remarkably enough, the Atlantic label. The early digital sound has been nicely remastered for this release, and the reissue was an intelligent move at this point in the series; this "Hammerklavier" is extraordinary.

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