Notes and Editorial Reviews
Piano Concerto No. 2
Piano Sonata No. 3 in a.
Nos. 3, 5, 10, 11, and 17
Emil Gilels (pn);
Mario Rossi, cond;
WDR SO Cologne
class="ARIAL12"> ICA 5077 (80:10)
Eyeballing Ates Tanin’s
Gilels discography compiled in 2006 and viewable online at doremi.com/DiscGilComp.html, you might come away with the impression that Emil Gilels recorded Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto many times over. On closer inspection, however, a different picture emerges. According to the cited discography, there are only four discrete versions, two of which—a 1958 performance with Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and a 1972 performance with Eugen Jochum and the Berlin Philharmonic—are standard issue and still widely available. Less widely circulated is a 1973 performance, again with Jochum, but this time with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. A still rarer version with Muti and the Philharmonia performing in Edinburgh dates from 1980. The disc at hand documents a March 19, 1971, in-concert performance from Cologne with the WDR Symphony Orchestra (previously the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra), and it’s not listed in Tanin’s discography, which is why I italicized
above. The omission could mean that either this is the recording’s first appearance on CD or, if not, then at least that a first CD release postdated the compiling of the discography.
Whatever the case, the high count of recordings by Gilels of both Brahms concertos is deceptive. In reality, it’s the same few actual performances that have been repackaged and reissued over and over again, in most cases by the same original issuing label. In fact, where the First Concerto is concerned, both the discography and other sources indicate that Gilels recorded the work only once, with Jochum and the Berlin Philharmonic, in 1972; and according to ICA’s liner note, the pianist performed the concerto only once in public, in 1975.
Compared to his much more extensive Beethoven discography, you could say that Gilels was not big on Brahms. In addition to the concertos, there are recordings of the pianist playing the Ballades, the op. 116 Piano Pieces, Book 1 of the
, and, in partnership with other musicians, performances of the G-Minor Piano Quartet and the Horn Trio. That’s about it—no
, none of the three sonatas, none of the other late piano pieces. It’s hard to know why, for the size and strength of the pianist’s hands and his prodigious keyboard technique would seem to have been well suited to Brahms, especially to the composer’s three big-boned, early sonatas.
Perhaps the answer lies in this performance of Brahms’s B?-Major Concerto, a reading as misconstrued as they come. It’s true that Brahms qualified the
marking of the first movement with the direction
. But to imagine that Gilels’s leisurely promenade is anything approaching
is to invent a whole new definition for musical terms. The Second Concerto is one of the few works for which Brahms provided metronome markings, and while it’s rare to hear anyone take the
(third movement) at the specified 84 to the quarter note—I believe Horowitz and Toscanini did—it’s just as rare to hear anyone take the first movement, marked 92 to the quarter note, as slowly as Gilels and Rossi do. Gilels here adds one second shy of a full minute, 19:13 vs. 18:14, to his aforementioned recording of a year later with Jochum and the Berlin Philharmonic, and that one isn’t exactly fast either. Fleisher with Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra in 1962 and Pollini with Abbado and the Vienna Philharmonic in 1976 both get it just about right at 17:02 and 17:08, respectively.
I won’t claim that Gilels doesn’t produce a sumptuous sound from his instrument or that Mario Rossi doesn’t elicit an equally plushy sound from the orchestra, but at the root of sumptuous is the word sump, and the definition of that is not very enticing. Respectful of Gilels as I am, he wouldn’t be my first recommendation for a Brahms Second, but if I were going to pick one of his versions of the piece, I’d choose his 1958 recording with Reiner and the Chicago Symphony. The first movement, at 15:42, may be a shade too brisk, but Reiner was not about to truck any foot dragging. He even pushes Gilels along in the usually expansive
for a reading that comes in at 11:47, compared to the strung-out 14:06 of the current Rossi performance. How slow is it? To play the long, drawn-out cello solo at the beginning of the movement, the principal cellist would have needed a bow extension.
At 14:02, Gilels’s
a year later with Jochum was only four seconds faster, which strongly suggests that the pianist needed a conductor, namely Reiner, to lay down the law. Fleisher’s
under Szell, another no-nonsense conductor, was 12:55, while Pollini’s
under the slightly more accommodating Abbado was an even quicker 12:40.
If no great love was lost between Gilels and Brahms, even less was lost between the pianist and Debussy, at least insofar as recorded repertoire goes. Other than Book 1 of
, the rest of Gilels’s Debussy legacy on record consists mainly of a
Claire de Lune
there, and a few other excerpts from the composer’s multimovement works. He does seem, though, to have had a special fondness for Book 1 of
. Counting the current version, taken from a Cologne recital on December 11, 1974, four other live performances, all predating this one, have been captured on record—Moscow, 1954; Budapest, 1963; Salzburg, 1972; and Prague, 1973—and all have circulated on various labels.
The Prokofiev sonata and
excerpts come from the same 1974 recital as the Debussy. The sonata is still a fairly early work in the composer’s canon and, among his sonatas, one of the shortest, lasting just under eight minutes in this performance. This is music that was right up Gilels’s alley, and he acquits himself well in the score, spitefully spitting out its percussive, toccata-like passages and softening his touch and tone in the warmer, more lyrical contrasting sections. The above-referenced Gilels discography lists four occasions other than this one on which Gilels was recorded in the sonata and the same five numbers from the
, but it doesn’t acknowledge the existence of this Cologne recital.
Clearly, this is a very generously filled disc with excellent sound to boot. If you’re a dedicated Gilels fan, you’ll undoubtedly want to add this CD to your collection. But the main business of the disc is the Brahms concerto and, as discussed above, the pianist’s version with Reiner is the preferable one, though gossip has it that the two men had some interpretive disagreements over tempos. Reiner prevailed, pressing Gilels into a faster reading than he was perhaps comfortable with, as is evidenced by his slower remake with the more amiable Eugen Jochum some years later. Nonetheless, I think it was Reiner’s driving Gilels to work harder and refrain from rambling that produced a tighter, more exciting performance.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Works on This Recording
Images for Piano, Set 1 by Claude Debussy
Emil Gilels (Piano)
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1905; France
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