by | Aug 4, 2010 | Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

Emil Gilels Legacy, Vol. 8 = VLADIGEROV: Three Pieces from Shumen Miniatures, Op. 29; BARTOK: Six Romanian Dances; SMETANA: Two Polkas; Bohemian Peasant Festival No. 6, “Dreams”; RAVEL: Valses nobles et sentimentales; MENDELSSOHN: Etude No. 3 in A Minor, Op. 104; CHOPIN: Variations on La ci darem la Mano, Op. 2; Ballade No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 23; KHACHATURIAN: Piano Sonata – Emil Gilels, piano

DOREMI DHR-7920, 77:35 [Distr. by Allegro] ****:

DOREMI gathers materials recorded 1950-1961 inscribed in concert by Russian piano virtuoso Emil Gilels (1916-1985), including pieces not included in his official, commercial discography. We immediately (from Moscow 1950) appreciate the catholicity of Gilels’ taste in the three Miniatures of Pancho Vladigerov (1899-1978), arguably Bulgaria’s greatest composer. In tonal syntax, his three pieces fuse folk idioms with jazz and aspects of Debussy and the French school of expression. The Lullaby in A Minor, Op. 29, No. 1 could be mistaken for an unknown gem by Poulenc or Ibert. The Bulgarian folk dance and Rustic Dance exploit quick shifts in rhythmic pulse, perhaps some cues from the Gershwin preludes.

There exists little Bartok as played by Emil Gilels, so the Moscow performance of the Six Romanian Folk Dances (29 November 1950) comes as a pleasant addition to the Gilels legacy. Casual but delicately molded, the pieces might have an intensity similar to the compression we receive from Webern, but Bartok’s Magyar sources yield melodic kernels pregnant–albeit at times clangorous–with lyricism. Gilels extends the folk motif with music by Smetana, a repertory we associate more with Rudolf Firkusny or Ivan Moravec. From the same 29 November 1950 venue we hear first a Polka in Major which sounds like a response to one of Chopin’s Op. 25 etudes. The Polka No. 2 in A Minor exploits an upbeat to invest the jagged piece with a tripping Slavonic flavor. Some gorgeous trills infiltrate the filigree, so the polka assumes Chopin’s salon personality. The spectacular moment arrives with “Dreams,” — Bohemian Peasant Festival, Op. 6, No. 6, an ambitious piece (in loose rondo-variation form) that ties Smetana to elements in Schumann and Grieg, almost an equivalent of the former composer’s ABEGG Variations. When the filigree takes off, we can only liken the effect to a volatile Hungarian Rhapsody by Liszt.

From 22 January 1959 in Moscow Gilels plays the aggressive, angular, and nostalgic Valses nobles et sentimentales by Maurice Ravel. At the second waltz, Gilels injects a misty aura that insinuates Ravel’s  kinship with Scriabin. The playful–almost childlike–selections proceed with a brittle clarity but radiant in nuance and degrees of canny pedal. The recording suffers some shatter in Gilels’ fortes, and the audience has a nasty habit of coughing off the beat. Still, the wash of keyboard sound communicates much of Gilels’ deft color facility, his plastic transitions that, as in the music Chopin, maintain a constant inner pulse. The Mendelssohn Etude (3 October 1954) provides a perpetual motion wrist-buster of the first order, which Gilels manages to realize with a light hand–a brief radio announcement–for the 15 February 1963 performance from the Grand Hall, Leningrad– in Russian follows, announcing the two Chopin additions to this program.

The first Chopin selection, the Variations on Mozart’s La ci darem la Mano from Don Giovanni, Op. 2, we recall, had Schumann’s taking his hat off to the young genius Chopin. With infinite panache and unaffected bravura, Gilels renders the young Chopin’s ability to translate the operatic vocal medium to the color palette of the keyboard. It takes four minutes of introductory filigree just to find Mozart’s original tune! The gradual evolution of the Mozart tune into a fantasy-polonaise always wins our admiration, as does this handsome performance by Gilels, affectionate, driven, intimate, and innately aristocratic as required. The incendiary performance of the G Minor Ballade will stand as one of the greats–Michelangeli, Horowitz, Rubinstein, and Moravec move over–a tensely heated account that fully grasps the Neapolitan conceits that make this piece Chopin’s “Appassionata.” In the meditative passages, Gilels allows a serene breadth into his otherwise manic vision that welds Romantic obsession to technical repose.

The final selection, Aram Khachaturian’s 1961 Piano Sonata (15 February 1963), coalesces the Gilels talents into one bravura work, which opens with a grand dragon-fly  toccata–Allegro vivace–whose more than one reference to the popular Saber Dance is not accidental. Often, the constant series of movements, declamations, and whirling filigree suggest the influence of Ravel’s Fireworks and Bartok‘s Allegro barbaro, here cross-fertilized by Khachaturian’s rich Armenian roots. The Andante tranquillo moves through a graceful slightly surreal space that might have been occupied by Debussy and Dali, albeit touched by Armenian chant. The middle section becomes frenetically aggressive in block chords and pungent staccati, only to return–or relent–to the delicate womb from which the momentary nightmare emerged. A residual urgency and jazz elements remains from the passion, and the coda jabs and mutters its way into the distance. Another wicked blast of cascading sounds opens the Allegro Assai last movement, once more a toccata in parallel or opposing octaves whose texture dissipates and rebuilds with thunderously colorful fury. That the punishing style of the piece–its grueling technical demands–pass through Gilels without a trace of strain testifies to an Olympian personality both behind the notes and before the keyboard.  

–Gary Lemco

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