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Emil Gilels in Prague = MOZART: Piano Sonata in F Major; BRAHMS: 4 Ballades; 7 Fantasien – Praga Digitals

Emil Gilels in Prague = MOZART: Piano Sonata in F Major, K. 533/494; BRAHMS: 4 Ballades, Op. 10; 7 Fantasien, Op. 116 – Praga Digitals stereo SACD PRD 250 309, 70:03 (8/14/15) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:  

Any recital that features the eminent Russian pianist Emil Gilels (1916-1985) must compel our attention, and this collation, taken from two appearances by Gilels at the Prague Spring Festival, contains music dear to his heart. The Mozart and Brahms Op. 116 – the latter of which he subsequently recorded for DGG – derive from his 24 May 1973 visit, while the Four Ballades comprised part of his recital five years later at the Czech radio, 10 May 1978.

The previously unpublished Mozart immediately presents us with the jeweled beauty of Gilels’ playing, here in Mozart’s large Vienna Sonata in F of 1788, composed for the publisher Hoffmeister. Its plethora of arpeggios and stratified textures evolve in a constant flurry of liquid sound – each avoiding a decisive cadence – no matter the register. The interior filigree may well derive from Bach’s influence in his inventions and preludes and fugues, cross bred by Mozart’s special character in the Alberti filigree.  The magnificent Andante in B- flat Major allows us to hear Gilels in his ardently introspective mode, moving through Mozart’s occasionally Lydian measures with florid grace. The bass line, however, descends into a dark counterpoint and passing dissonances more akin to elements in both Don Giovanni and the c minor Concerto. The Rondo, as we know, Mozart attached “artificially,” having reworked the 1786 original with decidedly polyphonic elements that had captured his fancy in works by Bach and Handel.  Gilels realizes this beguiling charmer of a rondo with an elastic, music-box sonority. The cadenza measures (143-169) align the style of the two disparate pieces, at least in their counterpoint.  When does delicacy verge upon voluptuousness?: in the piano art of Emil Gilels and Walter Gieseking.

The Brahms 1892 Op. 116 Fantasien, from the same program as the Mozart, opens with an explosion – in d minor – of passionate Romantic agony.  “Lullabies to my sorrows,” the Brahms epigram for these melancholy works, perfectly describes the Gilels interpretation.  Energy and introspection alternate in drooping figures we might ascribe to the lingering influence of Robert Schumann. The first of the intermezzi, that in A Minor, bespeaks the wrenching, interior passion in these works.  The ensuing Capriccio in g minor takes up arms against a sea of troubles. The transition to E-flat Major comes with a dignified resolve.  The Intermezzo in E (adagio) invokes the “rainy day” Brahms, the writing often “trespassing” into the sound world of Debussy. Another Intermezzo in E, this a sort of rocking barcarolle, places the Gilels sound at the disposal of cadences near those of the Fourth Symphony. The step-wise, sixth fantasy (Andantino teneramente) slightly resembles a Chopin prelude, part sarabande, part chorale. Closing in the same passionate mode as the set opened, the d minor Capriccio consolidates several warring emotions, not the least of which involves wrestling with the Angel of Death.

Between the antipodes of Mozart and late Brahms, we have the early Brahms, the 1854 Four Ballades in a Gilels radio appearance of May 10, 1978. Brahms had responded to Herder’s Stimmen von Voelker, particularly the Scottish ballad “Edward,” a morbid tale of patricide and a subsequent confession to the mother. Young Brahms, ever under the influence of the Beethoven Fifth Symphony, invokes his own “fate motif.” Gilels presents the following D Major Ballade as a chivalrous, high-minded romance. The strumming motif becomes quite an Aeolian harp prior to the stentorian second subject, a resolute march with stunning syncopations. A bit of Bach counterpoint precedes the descent into the march’s maelstrom, and then Brahms invokes his compulsive sonata-form recapitulation.  The music dissolves in a mix of resignation and mystery. The B Minor Ballade projects a nasty irony close to the grotesques Schumann favored from E.T.A. Hoffmann.  Its spectral qualities extend into the middle section, whose upper registers elicit a chorale. The da capo brings us back to a haunted earth.  The B Major Ballade – the most extended of the set – draws its ostinati and repeated sequences into an amalgam both haunted and passionate, a kind of obsessive impromptu. It breaks into a kind of scherzando treatment of its compulsions then divides the impulses, much as an adumbration of his own late style. Gilels leaves his Prague audience in silent awe.

—Gary Lemco

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