Liszt: Piano Sonata; Grandes Etudes de Paganini

Idil Biret

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Liszt: Piano Sonata; Grandes Etudes de Paganini Review

by James Manheim

Several series are underway under a general Idil Biret Archive rubric, variously collecting the great Turkish pianist's life's work and serving as a vehicle for newly recorded versions of major repertoire. This disc includes both types; the Liszt Piano Sonata in B minor is newly recorded, while the Grands Etudes de Paganini are reissues of a set of performances from the late '80s. There is a bit of a sonic lurch between the two, and they're discontinuous in other ways, as well. Liszt is not a composer one would immediately associate with Biret, who came essentially out of the analytical German tradition (her teacher was Wilhelm Kempff). But the sonata performance here is remarkable in several ways. First is the sheer power; Biret was close to 70 when the recording was made, but there is absolutely no hint of reaching for volume but not achieving it. The work has the proper bone-rattling quality in the development of its main theme and in other sheer virtuoso passages. This said, what's even more interesting is that Biret manages to bring her own personality to this famously showy piece and to tease out the ways in which Liszt paid homage to Beethoven and the sonata tradition in the work. More than almost any other composition by Liszt, the sonata is marked by motivic linkages and details that mark out the four movements of traditional sonata form within its single giant, tumultuous movement. Biret holds these elements in balance with great skill, with her trademark left-hand strength bringing out many small touches. The Paganini Etudes are certainly technically competent, but give her less to work with that is characteristically hers; the sound on those pieces is also subpar. But those whose collections include multiple versions of the Sonata in B minor should definitely investigate this. Booklet notes are in English only.

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