Emil Gilels plays Russian Music = Works of PROKOFIEV, SCRIABIN, MEDTNER, GLAZUNOV, RACHMANINOV, TCHAIKOVSKY – Brilliant Classsics (3 CDs)

by | Jul 27, 2012 | Classical Reissue Reviews

Emil Gilels plays Russian Music = PROKOFIEV: Piano Sonata No. 2 in D Minor, Op. 14; Piano Sonata No. 3 in A Minor, Op. 28; Piano Sonata No. 8 in B-flat Major, Op. 84; Excerpts from Visions fugitives, Op. 22; Toccata, Op. 11; March; SCRIABIN: Piano Sonata No. 3 in F-sharp Minor, Op. 23; Piano Sonata No. 4 in F-sharp Minor, Op. 30; Preludes, Op. 74; MEDTNER: Sonata in G Minor, Op. 21; TCHAIKOVSKY: 6 Morceaux, Op. 19; GLAZUNOV: Piano Sonata No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 75; RACHMANINOV: Daisies, Op. 38, No. 3; Vocalise, Op. 34, No. 14; 5 Preludes; Etude-tableau in E-flat Minor, Op. 39, No. 5 – Emil Gilels, piano – Brilliant Classics 9265 (3 CDs) 70:21; 50:54; 78:37 [Distr. By Naxos] ****:
Russian piano virtuoso Emil Gilels (1916-1985) represents another of those Odessa-born musicians whose superb technical means did not obscure the poetry of their conceptions. As early as 1932 Artur Rubinstein predicted a great future for Gilels, and a year later Gilels captured first prize at the All-Union Competition for young musicians. In 1938 he took first prize at the Eugene Ysaye Competition in Brussels, outshining fellow luminaries Flier and Michelangeli. Gilels’ projected 1939 tour of the USA had to be canceled because of the outbreak of WW II. A legend by 1962, Gilels finally could travel to the West, make recordings, and bequeath a considerable legacy to his prodigious talent, an approach brilliant but less percussively corrosive as that of his compatriot Sviatoslav Richter.
This Brilliant Classics assemblage of Russian composers includes recordings made 1951-1984. The all-Prokofiev disc one reminds us that Gilels at eleven heard Prokofiev perform his own music in Odessa, 1927. The 1912 Second Sonata (rec. May 1951) urges the bete noir in Prokofiev, though the Andante reveals the lyric side of an otherwise ironic character.  The concluding Vivace, a moto perpetuo, still basks in a glittery wash that a flexible, light hand can bestow. The 1917 A Minor Sonata “From Old Notebooks” in one movement (rec. January 1984) recasts materials from the composer’s student days, energetic and touched by a balletic impulse. The tender second subject, gossamer and wraithlike, projects haunted character to the live audience. The final section, Allegro con brio, wants a heavy touch to convey its often aggressive velocity, a real de force.
The Sonata No. 8 (rec. live January 1967) meant much to Gilels, who had premiered it 30 December 1944. Dubbed a “symphony” for the keyboard, the sonata boasts an embarrassment of riches in musical ideas. Ruminative, the first movement Andante dolce in this last of the “wartime sonatas” moves lyrically and polyphonically, its middle section development quite intense. The last pages almost form a separate movement in their bold, rapid finger work. The Andante sognando indicates “walking in a dream state,” and the tenor remains songful except for those occasional digs from the composer that refuse to cater merely to nostalgia. Prokofiev sets the Vivace in three parts, the outer sections bustling with triplets and leaping figures. Gilels imposes an almost hypnotic power upon the percussive episodes. The central material recaps impulses from earlier in the sonata, the whole often suggesting Prokofiev’s fluid version of Appassionata in his own, idiosyncratic terms. The colossal performance by Gilels elicits a rampage of applause.
The 1915-1918 Visions fugitives after Konstantin Balmont display Gilels’ liquid and alternatively piercing approach to these miniatures, their changing colors and subtle rhythmic shifts tailor-made for his deft touches. The 1912 Toccata in D Minor urges the note D in Byzantine intricacies that keep both hands in a constant flurry of scampering motion, especially in chromatic thirds. If Gilels’ potent Toccata has not convinced us of his sheer digital prowess, his popular arrangement of the March from Prokofiev’s The Love of 3 Oranges (after Gozzi’s play) should refresh our sardonic militancy with its pyrotechnical wizardries.
Gilels recorded Tchaikovsky’s 1883 salon pieces in live concert, date unknown. The Op. 19 set comprises six character sketches, of which the sixth, the Theme original et variations, has had some independent life. Their kinship to pieces by Grieg and Schumann in the same vein quickly becomes evident, as in the trio of No. 2, the Scherzo humoristique. The plaintive Feuillet d’album could just as easily been a part of The Seasons, Op. 37. The Nocturne may have influenced Debussy, who, recall, shared Mme. von Meck’s patronage. The angular Capriccioso offers a modal scale or two and tremolos enough to involve Gilels’ hands in slight variants of its own. Glazunov’s E Minor Sonata in three movements seems relatively conventional, albeit lyrical. Gilels injects no small degree of passion into the first movement, Moderato, which builds up a strong fury from small melodic kernels, with a dreamy second subject. The general structure rather suggests the influence of both the Chopin B Minor Sonata and his Polonaise-Fantasie. Opening like an Anton Rubinstein etude for the wrists, the Scherzo moves feverishly through bold octaves and aggressive, light ostinati reminiscent of Liszt’s La Leggierezza.  The Finale is set as an ambitious, thickly textured contrapuntal tour de force, its no obstacle for Gilels, who then enters into cyclical recollections of the two prior movements and a chorale. If the writing occasionally bears a potent Schumann stamp, coincidence is not at work.
Gilels recorded the Rachmaninov selections in December 1977. The transcriptions Daisies and the Vocalise pose no problem for Gilels’ innate poetry. Beginning with the ubiquitous C-sharp Minor Prelude, Gilels applies the leisurely but dramatically apt brush to four others as well: the passionately assertive, “fateful” B-flat Major; the ruminative G-flat Major; the dance-like B Major; and the wonderful G Minor, Op. 23, No. 5, whose middle section rises out of militant impulse to send us aloft with angels. The Etude-tableau trembles with nervous, descending chromatic lines of potent emotional energy. Gilels’ emphasis on the pedal B-flat makes the earth move.
Disc 2 presents Gilels in Scriabin’s rarified world, one Sviatoslav Richter once described as “entirely natural to us, a part of our Russian heritage.” The 1898 Sonata No. 3 (rec. January 1984) is cast in four traditional movements and represents perhaps the last sonata to conform to a classical model. The eight-bar opening motif will recur later, and the second subject of the restless first movement Drammatico rather lulls us in A Major. The Allegretto proceeds rather martially pesant at first, but its 16th notes in the middle section lighten the texture in rivulets reminiscent of Debussy. Scriabin links the Andante to the Presto con fuoco, binding a deep contemplation to the ecstasies and denials of the final bars. Gilels plays the dolcissimo with hazy sweeping gestures, often reminiscent of the third movement from the Chopin B Minor Sonata. Sadly, audience coughing mars the wonderful transition Gilels makes to the explosive last movement. We might hear bits of Tristan in the convulsive figures that surge and plunge with such erotic force. The Drammatico impulse concludes the work, but the effect urges darkness, not light.
The Sonata No. 4 (1903) condenses the form, and Gilels (rec. March 1957) realizes its Andante’s diaphanous motion in voluptuously iridescent figures. The Prestissimo volando bursts forth volcanically, hectic, urgent, undeniable. Gilels’ keyboard has become an erotic whirlwind, gusting and churning in sheets of thunder, lightning, and rain.  The last pages, taken at a blistering tempo, achieve a demonic ecstasy that quite overwhelms the audience.  The 1914 Five Preludes, Op. 74 move in universe between Russian eroticism and introspective Schoenberg, maybe late Brahms. No. 2 had a potent meaning for the composer, who argued it could played in a multiplicity of perspectives, a mysterium. Phlegm and fire alternate as two reigning humors, the sentiments deliberately ambiguous between cosmic lethargy and sudden solar flares.
Gilels concludes this disc with Nikolai Medtner’s 1910 one-movement G Minor Sonata (rec. January 1954), the composer’s fifth such opus. Russian at its opening, the first section suddenly transforms into a Bach toccata, liquid and light as realized by Gilels. The rocking figures anticipate parts of Rachmaninov’s D Minor Concerto. The music becomes progressively darker and more percussive. The Interludium: Andante lugubre forms the emotional center of this knotty work. Rather in the manner of Liszt, the dark chromatic line resonates in soft dynamics and some delicate syncopes and polyphony. The toccata motif becomes a fierce scherzo that unifies most of the presented themes, the sound a blend of angular Chopin and impish Rachmaninov. A march, in the Schumann maerchen style, accelerates us to the coda, delayed by yet another meditative rumination of great power that build on block chords to a massive final peroration.
—Gary Lemco

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