Emil Gilels Legacy, Vol. 9 = CHOPIN & SCHUBERT – Doremi

by | Jan 31, 2012 | Classical Reissue Reviews

Emil Gilels Legacy, Vol. 9 = CHOPIN: 24 Preludes, OP. 28; SCHUBERT: Piano Sonata No. 14 in A Minor, D. 784; Fantasy in F Minor, D. 940 (arr. Kabalevsky) – Emil Gilels, piano/ Moscow Philharmonic/ Kirill Kondrashin – Doremi DHR-7980, 74:05 [Distr. by Qualiton] ****:
The legacy of Russian virtuoso Emil Gilels (1916-1985), so beautifully preserved and extended by Doremi, receives another major addition in this disc, whose live performance (from Melodiya) of the cycle of Chopin Preludes from Leningrad (26 January 1953) celebrates its fifty-seventh anniversary even as I write. The first major Soviet pianist to perform in the West during the Cold War era, Gilels made any number of indelible impressions for his grandly poised style, often molded in the French taste.
The striking muscularity of execution in the Chopin Preludes requires little explication, but at once the Molto agitato of the F-sharp Major struck me with the force of fateful blows. The solemn bass trill of the ensuing E Major proves no less compelling in the course of its rather tragic procession. The B Major suggests rills and effortlessly flowing brooks, touched by melancholy. The Lento study in F-sharp Major does seem to conform to an etude’s requirements, with Gilels’ legato against a left hand ostinato rhythm’s providing a serene melody rife with vocalization.
We become increasingly aware of what a giant wreath Chopin has constructed around the circle of fifths, a veritable hymn to intervallic form. The E-flat Minor grumbles with a dark ferocity we will know again in the Op. 35 Sonata. Gilels’ burnished tone in the so-called “Raindrop” Prelude speaks for itself. Brilliant runs and mighty strokes carry us a away in the B-flat Minor, Chopin’s exalted key for tempestuous fire. The most elusive of the set, the Allegretto, A-flat Major, conveys a plethora of emotions, mostly nostalgic but touched by grandeur. Something of the “Butterfly” Etude invests itself into Gilels’ rendition of the E-flat Major Prelude, which shimmers and sings at once in glowing colors. “Dire” comes quickly as an epithet for the C Minor Largo, which Gilels graduates dynamically with astonishing subtlety. The B-flat Cantabile as played by Gilels points directly to the Debussy of Reflets dans l’eau. Chopin challenges Beethoven for potent alchemy in the G Minor, molto agitato, and Gilels is not shy to gallop directly at the Abyss. One more breath of life, the F Major canters in luminous droplets before the Dantesque plunge into D Minor, Allegro appassionato. Even in the Stygian depths, a moment of light appears, then Gilels makes the ultimate plummet, basking in the glories of reigning in Hell rather than serving in Heaven.
The obsessively dark Sonata in A Minor (1823) by Schubert finds a splendid realization by Gilels from the Moscow Conservatory (15 March 1963). Hewn rather than composed, the first movement Allegro gusto proceeds in blocks of sound to which Gilels adds touches of both Gothic gloom and tenderness, a sonata meant for Roderick Usher. The repeated dotted rhythms cede to sweeter moments in E Major, but while such gestures may laugh, they smile no more. The spare quality of the sound with its hungry spaces between notes presages the music of Mussorgsky, especially his Field-Marshall from Songs and Dances of Death.  Given the revelations of Gilels’ treatment by the Soviet authorities under Brezhnev, this music becomes a personal testament of bitter glory. Rarely has Gilels produced such acerbic sounds at the keyboard, compelling us to recall the words of Yeats, that “a terrible beauty is born.” Few musical inventions could contrast so greatly to the opening movement as the Andante in F Major, a slowly evolving arched melody in rich chromatic gestures. The opening dissonances act like Eastern guards before a harem inhabited by fair and exotic beauties. Gilels’ hands separate so that the right hand triplets offset what might have been a lugubrious bass line. The last movement, Allegro vivace,  begins with a running motive that might have inspired Smetana’s The Moldau. A wild ride ensues, the repeated triplets mesmeric in the manner of Bach imitation, while the askew rondo form emerges in the course of seething tumult. Moments of repose do occur, cool draughts of water amidst a fiery, swirling landscape. “How painful to recall moments of bliss in times of misery,” quoth Francesca da Rimini.
Dmitry Kabalevsky arranged the Fantasia for Piano-Duet, D. 940 as a tour de force for piano and orchestra, and this realization from Moscow 12 October 1962 makes a sophisticated curiosity in the style of Liszt’s own arrangement of the Wanderer Fantasy.
The orchestration certainly bears the hallmarks of Liszt, divided strings and tympani (and snare) in stirring motion we recognize from the Totentanz and Malediction. Like many of Schubert’s extensive one-movement piano works, the music subdivides into four parts in the manner of a traditional sonata-allegro or symphonic movement. Lithe and liquid, Gilels’ playing remains articulate and eminently poetic throughout, the dialogues with the orchestra alternately pungent, contrapuntal, and consolatory. The last pages transform the explosive martial atmosphere into the edgily ghostlike patterns of the opening, the music redolent of Weber’s Konzerstueck in the same key.
—Gary Lemco

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