Emil Gilels, piano = SCARLATTI: 7 Sonatas; DEBUSSY: Pour le Piano; Images–Livre I: Reflets dans l’eau; BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No. 27 in E Minor; SCRIABIN: Piano Sonata No. 4 in F-sharp Major; PROKOFIEV: 6 Visions fugitives; Piano Sonata No. 3 – BBC

by | Nov 18, 2009 | Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

Emil Gilels, piano = SCARLATTI: 7 Sonatas; DEBUSSY: Pour le Piano; Images–Livre I: Reflets dans l’eau; BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No. 27 in E Minor, Op. 90; SCRIABIN: Piano Sonata No. 4 in F-sharp Major, Op. 30; PROKOFIEV: 6 Visions fugitives, OP. 22; Piano Sonata No. 3 in A Minor, Op. 28

BBC Legends BBCL 4261-2, 79:57 [Distr. by E1 Entertainment] ****:


Culled from two concert venues in London, we have inscriptions by the great Russian pianist Emil Gilels (1916-1985) from St. John’s, Smith Square (15 October 1984) and Memorial Hall, Farrington Street (22 April 1957), basically from the beginning and the end of his British appearances.  The program repeats in its first half, almost exactly those pieces Gilels performed in Locarno’s Church of San Francisco 25 September 1984 and preserved on the Ermitage label (ERM 163-2) in 1995.

Gilels opens with one of Scarlatti’s Spanish toccatas, the D Minor, K. 141, with glittering repeated notes and sharp left-hand chords. The “bouquet” then proceeds to the brittle, gently martial Sonata in F, K. 518. Gilels makes use of the sustaining pedal and does not mind flourishes to add piquancy to the mix. A dreamy nostalgia permeates the D Minor Sonata, K. 32. What might have suited Bach as a fantasia serves as Scarlatti’s F Minor Sonata, K. 466, whose delicacy of execution warrants the price of admission. The A Major, K. 533 typifies Scarlattti’s brilliant scherzandi, a pastiche of color effects and applications of transparent touches. Gilels takes the familiar B Minor Sonata, K. 27 at a moderate tempo, emphasizing its “Aeolian harp” qualities. Michelangeli, on the other hand, always takes it as a presto, turning its melancholy beauties into a strummed toccata.  The final piece from the group, the G Major, K. 125, provides another bravura series of driven gestures in Spanish style, leaping and running with unfettered elan.

The sonic aura changes significantly in Debussy’s Pour le Piano suite and its febrile Prelude, the patina swift and pungent but retaining its “soft” capacity for the colors to melt into swirling harmonies. The Sarabande exhibits Gilels’ floating melodic line, rising from seemingly static bass harmonies to achieve a hybrid, both chorale and arioso plainchant. Gilels’ pearly approach to the Toccata begins slowly but his sound lolls forth in fluid waves in the C Major section, the accelerates through the choppy metrics to cascade in marvelous definition to a robust, kaleidoscopic finale. Reflets dans l’eau casts leisurely musings on the ripples and steely droplets that enter our sound space, Gilels producing as lovely a patina as any in his extensive legacy.

The Beethoven E Minor Sonata opens the 1957 studio program, the tempo rather quick and the sensibility nervous. Gilels emphasizes its lyrically experimental power, the tiny motives and rhythmic cells flurrying against each other in a procession of mercurial effects bound by a common, militant kernel. The diaphanous, elusive melody of the second movement adjusts its singing voice through the high registers in plaintive harmony. Occasionally, a glimpse of the tiger on Gilels’ style bursts forth, but always with intellectual restraint. The Scriabin Fourth Sonata exploits the “mystic chord” and a harmonic syntax built, appropriately enough, on fourths. Delicacy and digital strength combine in the tossing figures and ever-present trills that seek some rarified aether. The music segues to the Prestissimo volando, a hectic, almost brutal series of metrically jagged figures that Gilels negotiates as would an acrobat through a rocky volcanic crevasse.

Gilels gives us five minutes’ worth of Fugitive Visions, and they allow us five characters or sensibilities of distinct color and temperament. A lyrical metronomic irony passes through No. 3 Allegretto, while a clarion percussiveness rings No. 5 into our ears. The No. 10 Ridicolosamente was a Gilels staple, almost Scott Joplin; the No. 11 Con vivacita combines a bit of The Love for 3 Oranges with Romeo and Juliet; and the last, No. 17 Poetica offers gossamer raindrops. Finally, the miniature A Minor Sonata, Op. 29 returns to the bravura spirit, high energy and flippantly confident. The music transitions to a deliberate middle section melody; but it then veers into agitated and exotic places, often exploding in pageant or corrosive irony.

–Gary Lemco

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