BBC Legends – Emil Gilels

0 of 5 stars

Piano Sonata No.7 in D, Op.10/3
Fifteen Variations and Fugue in E flat, Op.35 (Eroica)
Twelve Etudes, Op.8 – No.2 in F sharp minor
Three Pieces, Op.2 – No.1: Etude in C sharp minor
Five Preludes, Op.74
Jeux d’eau
Miroirs – Alborada del gracioso

Emil Gilels (piano)

Recorded 20 November 1980 in Cheltenham Town Hall

Reviewed by: Colin Clarke

Reviewed: February 2009
BBCL 4250-2
Duration: 75 minutes

In any game of word association, the odds must surely be stacked against matching Emil Gilels with Cheltenham. Yet here the great man was, in November 1980, giving a wonderful recital.

Gilels’s clean articulation is a marvel in the rapid-fire Presto (here it is a true presto) of Beethoven’s Sonata. This work was a late arrival in Gilels’s repertoire – he first performed it in a recital in 1979 during a tour of the States. The live provenance here furnishes us with the odd wrong note, and there are oddities: Gilels’s way with the second subject appoggiaturas is such that he transforms them into acciaccaturas – the result of a particular edition or an interpretative whim?. They sound like stutters, whichever way, and, if one is feeling positive, at least allow us to hear the passage in a different light.

The first-movement exposition repeat is included, which balances the movement’s length with the following Largo e mesto (although there is an in-built overall imbalance in the sonata as a whole, with the final two movements being significantly slighter than the first two). There are some passages in the first movement’s development section that can only be described as sloppy. All is forgiven in the great Largo, though, in which Gilels’s concentration, his very Russian avoidance of over-pedalling and his pacing of the movement so that we hear an ongoing, hypnotic quaver pulse result in a mesmerising experience. Perhaps the entry of the third movement does not quite creep-in as seems to be its nature; strange as Gilels seems to see it as an extension of the slow movement because of its gently oscillating metre. The finale is generally gentle but not without fluffs. Gilels’s 1980 Deutsche Grammophon studio recording is of course more technically accurate.

The ‘Eroica’ Variations comes wrapped in granite. Fingerwork here is stunning, and despite the hard-as-rock general demeanour, there are some moments of real fantasy. As the complexity of the Variations increases, so do Gilels’s responses to the demands, resulting in some spectacular playing. Gilels clearly sees the trill around two minutes before the work’s close as heralding the world of the late sonatas. He structures the Variations and Fugue brilliantly.

Regarding the Scriabin, the documentation for the two Etudes is misleading. The designation for the first one that we hear is given as “Etude No.2 in F sharp minor, Op.8” – it is actually Opus 8/Number 2; that of the second is given as “Etude No.1 in C sharp minor, Op.2” when Opus 2 is a set of three pieces, of which only the first – the present piece – is an etude (the other two are a Prelude and an Impromptu). That gripe aside, one is left with Gilels’s wonderfully stylish playing. The highest compliment I can give is that the Opus 8 Study does not sound like Rachmaninov. It is altogether darker than anything Rachmaninov might have imagined, even in his most depressive moments. The C sharp minor Etude exudes a similar aura of intimate sadness (although here there is a kinship with Rachmaninov’s soundworld).

The Opus 74 Preludes date from 1914, some 25 years after Opus 2, and how it shows. Harmonies swirl into one another and, in the third Prelude, become decidedly fragrant. The applause after the fifth and final Prelude is, perhaps understandably coming after the Beethoven, more polite and perplexed than enthusiastic, but actually it is the Scriabin that provides the highlight of the disc.

There appears to be only one other Jeux d’eau available from this pianist (in a Melodiya box) so this BBC Legends taping is a valuable addition. Gilels delivers delicacy but allows for little femininity – this is tasteful, skittish and ever distinguished. The occasional run is fudged, but the whole provides an excellent foil for the more extrovert Alborada del gracioso. Only some of that Russian dryness tempers the festivities.

Unfortunately we miss a piece from the recital. There were three Ravel items, but Pavane pour une infante défunte would not fit on. We do get to hear the encore, though, Poulenc’s brief Pastourelle. Gilels was obviously attached to this famous bonne bouche – he first recorded it in 1937. Certainly he plays it with lashings of affection and a charm that could, here at least, pass for authentically Gallic.

Jonathan Summers’s booklet note makes tantalising reference to a telecast of Gilels in Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Simon Rattle at the Royal Albert Hall just two days before the present recital. Who will do the honours and put this on DVD?

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