Thursday, April 15, 2010

Idil Biret Plays High-Modernist Piano Compositions

Idil Biret made a series of recordings in the vinyl era that cemented her reputation as a world-class pianist. One of the more unusual ones was a set of high-modernist pieces for solo piano released on Finnadar years ago. It is now available again as part of the comprehensive re-release program put forward by the Idil Biret Archive Edition (IBA). (This is volume three.)

High Modernism peaked in the visual art world as abstract expressionism, color field, neo-geo and minimalism held sway between the early '50s and mid-sixties. It has never really disappeared altogether. Nonetheless the advent of pop art initiated a still-dominant tendency toward the synthesis of "high' and "low" forms, the use of vernacular sources, and the appropriation and transformation of the everyday leavings of industrial modernity. Music saw the peak of the High Modernist form in serialism and other formalist pan-tonal/atonal composition trends, which remained dominant until minimalism and neo-romanticism began a surgence in the later '60s.(The musical version of minimalism was much more eclectic and tended toward the incorporation and appropriation of the vernacular or folk idioms, as opposed to the radical formalism of the visual version in its original incarnation.)

Idil Biret's New Line Piano, which is the Volume Three of the Archive Edition of which we speak in today's review, tackles four lesser known pieces, "Archipel IV" by Boucourechliev, "Cangianti" by Castiglioni and the "Sonata Pian e Forte" by Brouwer. Finally there is "Session" by Mimaroglu, a kind of aural collage of piano, electronics and spoken word. This latter piece breaks somewhat with the high-abstraction of the three other works. More on that in a minute.

Listening to "pure" modernist music has to be one of the more demanding tasks set before the aesthetic pilgrim (other than listening to Wagner's complete Ring cycle more or less back-to-back at Bayreuth). But it also promises the serious listener the transformation of how he or she hears music, if sufficient time and effort goes into the experience. Because much of the music has no clear tonal center, or that center is expanded significantly, one must listen to the tones and sound color elements outside of the typical western harmonic framework. After a time, one simply hears differently, hears more fully, has a heightened awareness of intervalic connections and the sense of music as a sonic adventure.

New Line Piano provides a way into such a form of consciousness, or at least a start. Biret's performances of these difficult works are exemplary and, if I might say so, take on a bravura quality. This is excellent music, very well performed. Perhaps the exception is in Mimaroglu's piece. He was a brilliant but sometimes slightly erratic composer, someone whose pioneering electronic/concret music masterpieces used unusual sound sources ingeniously, but was also willing to take chances and sometimes engage in less successful experimentation in multi-form presentations. "Session" combines some of his electronics with a piano part that is not entirely distinctive, then overlays multiple readings of political and/or self-referencing texts. It doesn't quite work, but it has a charming period-specific vibe to it that is not unappealing. Anyone who already likes Mimaroglu will probably appreciate this piece, even if it is one of his less successful ones.

Here, then, is a collection of now rather obscure piano works. Extended re-listening, however, leads to compensatory rewards. It is Biret at her most extreme, but sometimes rather astonishingly so. Bravo.

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