Emil Gilels plays Schubert & Liszt [Sony Classical Originals]

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Piano Sonata in D, D850
Piano Sonata in B minor

Emil Gilels (piano)

Recorded in New York – Liszt on 28 December 1964 & 5 January 1965, Schubert between 16 to 22 January 1960

Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: October 2011
Duration: 71 minutes



The great Ukrainian pianist Emil Gilels caused a sensation when he toured the United States in 1955. Over the next decade he made a number of LPs for the Record Corporation of America (RCA). This current release features performances released in 1961 (Schubert, LSC2493) and1965 (Liszt, LSC 2811). The Schubert was one of the last of RCA’s celebrated Living Stereo LPs and for comparison I have chosen the man that Gilels made the famous remark about in response to the acclaim he was receiving – “wait until you hear (Sviatoslav) Richter” – recorded in Moscow in 1956.

In the first movement of the Schubert, if Gilels is fast then Richter is almost intimidatingly so, and both observe the exposition repeat. Gilels’s attack is very emphatic (a quality emphasised by minimal pedal use) while Richter utilises a more cantabile effect at a presto (as opposed to the marked Allegro vivace) tempo. Some commentators have remarked on the seeming incongruity of the music-box like finale, without releasing that it is full of jokes and that Schubert pulls another by making the start of the first movement development seem like a third statement of the exposition. Here it is Richter who adds a touch of capriciousness by giving the first theme a different dynamic contour. In the remainder of the movement it is he who uses more variation in rubato and tempo and thus avoids sounding hectoring as Gilels sometimes does.

The sublime slow movement is marked – somewhat ambiguously – Con moto. Gilels and Richter both give the greatest performances of it. Both are very slow (Gilels takes sixteen-and-a-half minutes, Richter a minute less) and both weave a hypnotic web of sound. Both ignore the forte markings in the first twenty bars and Gilels in particular is meticulous in maintaining the length of the quarter notes that start each bar of the first subject. Each artists’ range of pianissimo shading is exceptional, their command of rubato absolute. If a choice had to be made, then it would be Gilels, simply because his very quietest pianissimos are of surpassing beauty.

Gilels is sternly Beethovenian in the opening eight bars of the scherzo and then very delicate in the treble-dominated second half of the theme. He slows for the trio – although no such change is marked – and plays it like a Chopin nocturne. The finale is launched in a very soft straightforward manner, with small dynamic nuances and subtle rubato. As the music moves into mock fugal mode – replete with counterpoint – Gilels remains restrained. After the return of the first subject his playing of the subsequent section is powerful, but again restrained, and the coda is a model of tasteful delicacy. Yet something is missing – and for that you have to go to Richter.In his hands the start of the scherzo is similarly direct, but in the trio he drives home the impact of the distant keys of G flat and B minor in the climaxes. There is nothing lightweight in Richter’s finale, where the first subject is heavier, and he refuses to linger over the second. Unlike Gilels though, he does highlight the references to the last movement of Beethoven’s ‘Waldstein’ Sonata (a deliberate joke on Schubert’s part?) without ever sacrificing a quiet underlying sense of authority and ambiguity, where the coda brings no finality.

In Liszt’s Piano Sonata no comparison is needed, since Gilels gives a performance that stands with Claudio Arrau’s celebrated 1969 Philips recording as possibly the finest studio example of the powerful but leisurely approach to this transcendental masterpiece. The opening bars are full of tension and beautifully pedalled, the first subject has slight pauses and the tempo is kept firmly in check. When the grandioso theme arrives, it is massively stated (there is also a minor slip, which must have escaped the editing process) and then Gilels sinks into a beautiful reverie of Chopinesque delicacy, which is a masterclass in touch and expressiveness. As the tempo increases Gilels again makes minimal adjustments to the basic speed and uses changes of dynamic – both micro and macro – line and legato to highlight the various themes. When the grandioso theme (it helps to signpost the Sonata) makes its first full reappearance, the tone is golden and the following bars contain some exquisite pppp and cantabile phrasing. The move to the fugato is beautifully understated, every part is clearly voiced and the statement of the theme is restrained. The lead up to its final statement is powerful, but controlled and the final valedictory bars culminate in a very soft eight-part B major chord and barely audible final single B sharp.

This is not the only way to do the B minor Sonata and the lead-up to the final statement of the theme is – compared to Horowitz at Carnegie Hall in 1949, or Curzon at the Edinburgh Festival in 1961 (both live) – a little lacking in fire, but the overwhelming impression is that of a powerful intellect using every aspect of piano technique to present a flowing, never exaggerated account of Liszt’s greatest composition.

With regard to the sound, the Liszt is fuller than the Schubert, but the dynamic range is somewhat limited. However the Schubert, when compared with a first-label American RCA LP (LSC 2493), has lost some of the original’s depth and the image has been moved forward. Certainly on the LP Gilels sounds less hectoring in the first movement, and there is far more tonal colouring.

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