Awesome technique is not always cause for rejoicing, and Idil Beret actually gave her audience little reason to smile on Sunday evening at the University of Maryland. In the first of several concerts coinciding with the Tenth Annual International Piano Competition, the Turkish State Artist displayed considerable pianistic prowess in the works of Bach, Schumann, and Liszt; but few signs of passion or commitment were betrayed.
The program opened with Bach's French Suite No. 5. Biret's feet stayed clear of the pedals, her rhythms were kept in careful check. Still, there was an atmosphere of anxious anachronism surrounding her performance, even if the Sarabande section gave hints of elegance and discretion which unfortunately were augurs of what was to come in the Romantic section of the program.
Schumann's eight Fantasiestucke, Opus 12 followed. These are marvels of piano writing, as important to the development of the possibilities of the keyboard as they were to the personal pursuit of Robert Schumann for his beloved Clara. They are extremely personal pieces, requiring more than a mere reading of the fiendishly difficult score. Biret's cold virtuosity turned Schumann's romantic fire into mere academic exercises, impressive for an advance classroom but hardly what the master had in mind. This was particularly painful in the formidable "Soaring" section, and only in the final dream visions of the piece were the daring dynamic horizons approached.
What came next was a Herculean test by any standard, and Biret's attempts were actually rather brave. Franz Liszt's piano reduction of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique is a reduction only in the most limited dictionary sense, since often his piano writing more than matches in scope the possibilities of any orchestra. While the famed idee fixee becomes less subtle in the pianistic treatment -- almost vulgar, really -- the results are anything but dull. Idil Biret came alive in this work, perhaps indicating that her failure with Schumann may have been a case of misplaced idiosyncracy, rather than poor playing. While the Berlioz orchestra was like Beethoven gone mad, in Liszt's piano treatment the music became positively demonic. There was a bit of the demon in Biret's playing, and we were thankful for this devilish finale to an otherwise uneventful evening.