Emil Gilels = SCHUMANN: 4 Klavierstuecke, Op. 32; BRAHMS: 4 Ballades, Op. 10; CHOPIN: Polonaise in C Minor, Op. 40, No. 2; Piano Sonata No. 3 in B Minor, Op. 58; MOZART: Fantasy in D Minor, K. 397 – Emil Gilels, piano – ICA Classics ICAC 5108, 81:35 [Distr. By Naxos] *****:
The Abbotsholme Arts Society at which Russian virtuoso Emil Gilels (1916-1985) appears (22 March 1979) in a rare recital was founded by Gordon Clark, Director of Music at Abbotsholme School, in 1968. During the 1970s, it attracted the greatest musicians of the time, including Murray Perahia, Radu Lupu, Sviatoslav Richter, Martha Argerich, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Clifford Curzon, Annie Fischer, Claudio Arrau, Krystian Zimmerman, Shura Cherkassky, and Moura Lympany.
The Schumann set of Vier Klavierstuecke (1838-39) with which Gilels opens the recital has been known to collectors of Music&Arts label discs. Gilels picked up these often overlooked pieces – several times sounding like kin to Kreisleriana – in December 1977. The set asks for a martial affect beset by Schumann’s idiosyncratic counterpoint. Dotted rhythms predominate. What Schumann designates as a Romanze demands speed and bravura, literally. The middle section allows the sentimental Schumann to express himself. Gilels plays the Fughetta in a sostenuto manner rather than in its marked Leise indication.
Brahms figured in Gilels’ repertory more in the concertos than in solo works, but after the mid-1950s the late klavierstuecke appeared and the Vier Balladen (1854) in 1975. Gilels takes a deliberate pace for the D Minor “Edward” Ballade after the Herder poem. The mysterious, tragic affect in open fifths and octaves gains potent resonance as its “fate” motto resonates in the bass and treble lines. The D Major Ballade presents an immediate contrast in sensibility: lyrical, nostalgic, dreamy, it nods in several affects to Schumann as well as to the slow movement from his own F Minor Sonata. Another “fate” motif rises (in 6/4) out of the dream which Gilels realizes with canny syncopations and subtle dynamics. The most skittish, perhaps impish, of the set, No. 3 in B Minor, might take its cue from demonic Liszt, but Gilels makes its brother to Mussorgsky. Its central episode might suggest a disembodied chorale. The last of the group, in B Major, seems tinged with dreamy regret while casting several distinct allusions to Schumann’s Romanze in F-sharp Major, Op. 28, No. 2. Gilels performs the Piu lento section with requisite intimacy, well appreciated by his audience.
Chopin may have not dominated Gilels’ programs, but his authority in music of the Polish master could hardly be doubted after his fine account of the E Minor Concerto with Ormandy for CBS. The C Minor Polonaise (1841) came to Gilels in the mid-1960s, its melodic interest confined mostly to the left hand octaves. The exquisite work in A-flat Major, espessivo, permits Gilels the poet to shape Chopin’s tender intimacy with refined ardor. The grand 1844 Sonata in B Minor came to Gilels in 1977, long after its steady companion in B-flat Minor. Gilels seems beguiled by the power of rubato for this enchanted, expansive first movement, played less maestoso than teneremente – especially in its nocturnal secondary motif – although the bass trills convey the dark undercurrents of Chopin’s passion. Rarely has the sheer delicacy of Chopin’s polyphony achieved such a glowing effect. Gilels’ jeu perle does not diminish for the lithe gossamer Scherzo in E-flat, its two outer sections’ framing poetic counterpoint in B Major. We have been awaiting the operatic Largo, the rocking accompaniment as refined as the right hand triplets Gilels executes later in the movement. The chains of melodic scales that issue from Gilels for the major course of the movement should place every music lover in thrall. Finally, the Presto last movement, a potent tarantella whose rondo theme gains more sweep with each ritornello, has Gilels in tumultuous throttle, his own frenzy barely contained.
That Gilels provides us another dramatic masterpiece as an encore to the ovation that blasts forth after the Chopin appears inevitable. The haunted figures of Mozart’s D Minor Fantasy emerge in ghostly relief, its tonal patina as much presented in chimes as in keyboard sonorities. The descending octaves enter dark regions, likely akin to Gluck’s operatic sojourn into the Underworld. The traversal proves an odyssey from gloom into polished light, especially as Gilels dispenses joy and exalted affection upon all listeners.
At over 80 minutes of music and beautifully recorded, we might consider this document among “the great recordings of the century.”