It was in the early 1950s that the Iron Curtain began to open from time to time, allowing great Soviet artists to perform in the West for the first time. Music lovers around the world, who had known of Oistrakh, Kogan, Rostropovich, Richter and Gilels (1916-1985) only through a handful of Russian Melodiya recordings until then, now had opportunities to hear them in person.
Each live concert by one of these legendary figures was eagerly anticipated all over Europe and North America. I heard them all in those exciting days, but it was the forty-year-old Gilels with his dazzling pianism and flaming red hair who made the greatest impression on me. His recital in Massey Hall in 1956 was, in my opinion, stupendous. I left the hall dumbfounded after hearing him play, among other things, excerpts from Stravinsky’s Petrouchka; his technique seemed to take his performance far beyond what I thought it was possible to do on a keyboard. For listeners who never had the opportunity to hear Gilels live, this new recording comes close to recreating my experience, and as such, it is self-recommending.
A word of caution, however; since this is neither a studio recording nor a carefully planned live recording, the quality is far from ideal. DG describes it as a recording “made for private purposes but with professional equipment”. Its biggest drawback is that while it allows us to hear a great pianist at the top of his form, it does not give us anything like an accurate representation of the tonal beauty of Gilels’ playing. The piano sound is brittle and hard-edged. Having said all that, it is impossible not to be swept up in the excitement of these performances, and we are indebted to DG for making this concert recording available commercially for the first time.
The longest piece on the CD is Beethoven’s “Waldstein” sonata, and this may well be the most exciting, indeed hair-raising, performance this work has ever had. Gilels takes extremely fast tempi throughout, and it is literally incredible that the final Prestissimo could be played not only this fast but this accurately with such speed. That said, one can easily imagine that this is how Beethoven conceived the piece: relentlessly powerful, mercurial – indeed almost schizophrenic in its sudden changes of mood – and gripping from beginning to end.
Chopin’s Variations on “La ci darem la mano” from Mozart’s Don Giovanni is a cleverly conceived piece which makes almost impossible demands on the performer. Gilels tosses it all off with the greatest of ease. But it must be said that Gilels misses the grace and charm of this music, almost beating it to a pulp at certain moments. And here is an example of where the auditory deficiencies of the recording tend to reinforce these aspects of the performance.
Gilels is an ideal interpreter of Prokofiev’s brief Piano Sonata No. 3 in a minor Op. 28, giving the percussive sections full expression. Then, in Prokofiev’s Vision Fugitives, he teases out the playful character of the music with clarity and restraint.
With Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso, we are back to the piano pounding that marred the Chopin. It is not aggression but colourful exuberance that is wanted here.
With a stunning encore, the “Danse Russe” from Stravinsky’s ballet Petrouchka, Gilels is back in his element. The playing here is percussive as it is meant to be, but virtuosic beyond the abilities of most pianists. The CD concludes with another encore from the 1964 Seattle recital, a beautifully conceived rendering of the Siloti arrangement of Bach’s Prelude in b minor BWV 855a.
Gilels often recorded for DG in the course of his career, and the company has now gathered together all of his Yellow Label recordings in one boxed set of 24 CDs (DG 479 4651). For recorded live performances by Emil Gilels, your best source is unquestionably DOREMI. This Toronto company has issued ten volumes to date — with more to come — in its “Emil Gilels Legacy” series, with outstanding notes by Ates Tanin. You can also find a Gilels Discography prepared by Tanin, on the DOREMI website.
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