Notes and Editorial Reviews
Sets like this are cherished possessions for lovers of the piano.
Following the demise of the Soviet Union on Christmas Day 1991 several record companies were quick to release discs “from the archives”. Some of them claimed to have access to vast stocks of original master tapes of recordings many of which had never been heard. Whether these claims were true or not some of those series were short-lived and few companies have continued over time to release anything “new”. One that is still doing so is Brilliant Classics and this 3 CD set is a case in point.
I don’t know whether any of the recordings on the set have been heard before but in any event collectively it is a wonderful document to
celebrate the achievement of one of the greatest pianists of the last century. Born in Odessa in 1916, Gilels made his debut at the age of twelve giving a recital of Beethoven, Chopin, Scarlatti and Schumann which was well received. I don’t know if there is any real accuracy in statements that explain the influences upon musicians through their teacher’s teachers but if there is then through Gilels’ teacher there are links back to Chopin and Clementi. I take my hat off to anyone who can discern those influences, particularly when he plays the likes of Prokofiev, or am I just being a doubting Thomas?
In any event the first disc is devoted to live recordings of Gilels playing Prokofiev. I always find it really interesting how one’s tastes develop over the years because there was a time when I found Prokofiev more difficult to understand and appreciate than Shostakovich. I think it was that I found Prokofiev’s music more complex and his rhythms less obvious than Shostakovich. Now, however, I just adore his music and find his spiky rhythms highly satisfying and amusing and this is particularly the case with the scherzo of his second piano sonata which just makes me smile from ear to ear it’s so funny. Written when Prokofiev was only 20 we can see that his style was already well formed and though he honed it he didn’t alter his basic ideas much thank heavens. Gilels had a particular affection for Prokofiev’s third piano sonata and it is here in a recording from January 1984. The only problem with live recordings made in winter, as most of these were, is that people cough more than they do in summer but it is a great recording nevertheless. Gilels was fortunate enough at eleven years of age to have seen Prokofiev give a concert of his own music in Odessa in 1927. He made the composer’s music one of his specialities and was repaid when Prokofiev dedicated his eighth sonata to Gilels who gave its première in 1944. It remained one his favourite works to play. Again having been recorded in January 1964 in this case, we have to put up with even more coughing but putting that aside it is marvellous to have the dedicatee playing this sonata with the subtlety he was renowned for as well as well as his insight into Prokofiev’s unique musical view. Despite the first movement being marked
Andante dolce there are plenty of powerful moments and they present no problems to Gilels who knew how to hit the keys with sufficient force when required as well as gently caressing them at other times. I don’t know whether any re-mastering work was done on these recordings; they are certainly “clean” enough but the piano itself sounds rather tinny here, though that still does not detract from the artistry on display. The second movement marked
Andante sognando certainly lives up to it as Gilels sounds as dreamy as a somnambulist. The sleeper awakes abruptly in the final
Vivace which has all Prokofiev’s special hallmarks including coruscating notes that tumble like rapids that flash in the brilliance of bright sunlight. It’s no wonder the end brings rapturous applause from the audience. There are more dreamy moments in the selection Gilels plays from
Visions fugitives Op.22 which are so lovely. The
Toccata Op.11, however, is another example of the way Prokofiev could create a kind of musical maelstrom with the notes literally hurtling along. It’s a real white knuckle ride that is a furious and dazzling display of breathtakingly staggering proportions. Disc one ends with the famous March from
The Love for Three Oranges.
Though I always find it hard to leave Prokofiev the second disc begins with Scriabin and one could not imagine a collection of Russian music that did not include him though his music is not typically Russian in any way. Scriabin created his own totally unique sound-world divorced from any easily identifiable tradition. Gilels with his sensitivity was an ideal Scriabin interpreter who was able to reveal every nuance in this most ethereal music. While his power is often called upon his deft touch is perfect when Scriabin is at his most otherworldly. The 1984 recording of the 3
rd piano sonata is as fresh sounding as if it had been made today. It’s back to March 1957 for sonata no.4 though but this is also amazingly good, despite the seemingly inevitable coughing. I’ve recently reviewed Vladimir Feltsman playing Scriabin and so can compare this rendition with Feltsman’s recorded just last year. Feltsman takes a more leisurely pace with a recording that lasts a full one minute and fifteen seconds longer which is quite considerable for a piece that is still well under ten. With the benefit of modern equipment and a studio environment it is easy to see why most people would be likely to choose Feltsman over Gilels but given the choice of having both it is just great to own his historic recording which is so majestic and insightful. With Scriabin’s
Préludes Op.74 I can also make a comparison with the Feltsman disc. Gilels’ was recorded in January 1984 like the 3
rd sonata and the sound again is excellent to my ears. There is little to choose between them pianistically and only a single second in length. I love Scriabin’s markings as with no.4 in this set which are
Slow, vague, indecisive. It was a cruel irony that Scriabin who in 1905 wrote “I am God! ... I am the peak” should die at the early age of 43 from a shaving cut, though no doubt religious fundamentalists would have an explanation.
This second disc is completed by Medtner’s
Sonata in G minor Op.22 the recording of which dates from January 1954. As the booklet explains, it was a favourite work, not only of Gilels, but also of Prokofiev and Horowitz which is very telling. It is interesting that both Scriabin and Medtner were both pupils of Vasily Safonov at the Moscow Conservatory and there is some similarity in their late romantic style though Medtner was very definitely a Russian composer whose nationality is clearly imprinted in his music. There is no applause at the end of this recording so I imagine it was made in a studio and so is free from the results of audiences with winter colds; it is merciful that the artists themselves are either immune from them or know how to keep them in check! Medtner’s sonata is a gorgeous work that affords Gilels ample opportunity to show his gifts of style and pace. It is quite remarkable that a recording that is almost 60 years old should sound so fresh but so it does.
The final disc in this enjoyable set is more of a typical popular Russian programme of works by Tchaikovsky, Glazunov and Rachmaninov. The recording details for the bulk of this disc are unknown but are from different dates I think; the Tchaikovsky strikes me as a studio recording. His
6 Morceaux Op.19, despite their early opus number, were composed in 1873 when Tchaikovsky was 33 and are very pretty little pieces that show the composer’s characteristic flair for melody. We then move on to Glazunov whose
Piano Sonata No.2 in E minor Op.75 Gilels plays with great aplomb. It was written in Glazunov’s middle period when he was 36 and is substantial though undemanding. This recording was certainly live; the audience applaud at the end of the each movement (tut, tut!) and the piano sound is uneven. I think if I’d been responsible for compiling this set I’d have chosen something else instead of this. The real meat on this last disc, however, comprises the sequence of 8 works by Rachmaninov recorded live in December 1977 and that begin with his
Daisies Op.38 No.3. Gilels’ soft touch is just what is required for such a piece and it is a delightful start to this section. The
Vocalise Op.34 No.14 is so very well known and has spawned many versions. Its dreamlike and floating nature is brought out perfectly here in a well measured and nuanced account. Moving on to 5 of his preludes we hear probably Rachmaninov’s most well known work apart from his 2
nd Piano Concerto: the wonderful and moving
Prelude in C sharp minor Op.3 No.2 that surely no one is immune to. It is played here with all the power and majesty required for a truly great performance. I still find it amazing that anyone could have written that at the age of 19. One might say “Follow that!” and the
Prelude in B flat Op.23 No.2 comes close but he was 30 by then and 37 by the time he wrote the one in B Op.32 No.11. This comes between two others from the Op.23 set, the last of which, played here, in G minor Op.23 No.5, is as famous as the No.2 and again is so characteristic of Rachmaninov at his romantic best. If the composer himself with his incredibly long fingers could have played them better I’d like to hear it - and no doubt it’s available. The final work of the disc and the set is Rachmaninov’s
Étude-tableau in E flat minor Op.39 No.5 which is a gentle piece.
The booklet notes describe the 20
th century as being the start of the so called Russian ‘piano school’ led by the great piano composers Scriabin, Rachmaninov and Prokofiev (and including Medtner and Glazunov) and which continued through the virtuosos Neuhaus, Yudina, Sofronitsky, down to the LP generation of Richter and Gilels and which has continued with Ashkenazy, Pletnev and Kissin, continuing today with many others. One could write a book if one hasn’t already been about this Russian phenomenon which also embraces violinists and cellists among others. The ‘piano school’ however, is such a phenomenon that the majority of the greatest pianists in the last 100 plus years have been of that school. That country made the art of pianism its own in the same way as it made ballet. Emil Gilels who won so many prizes was without a doubt one of the most outstanding examples of that school and the history of the piano will always include a section about him. When he died unexpectedly in 1985 at the age of 69 (not nearly 80 as quoted in the notes) the world lost a superstar in the true sense of the word. That is why sets like this are cherished possessions for lovers of the piano and at Brilliant Classics’ brilliant prices nobody will want to be without this one.
-- Steve Arloff , MusicWeb International
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