Gilels in Seattle = Works of BEETHOVEN, CHOPIN, PROKOFIEV, RAVEL, DEBUSSY, STRAVINSKY & BACH – DGG

DGG restores a colossal recital from the Russian legend Gilels.

Gilels in Seattle = BEETHOVEN: Sonata No. 21 in C Major, Op. 53 “Waldstein”; CHOPIN: Variations on “La ci darem la mano,” Op. 2; PROKOFIEV: Piano Sonata No. 3 in a minor, Op. 28; Visions fugitives, Op. 22 – excerpts; DEBUSSY: Images, Book I; RAVEL: Alborado del gracioso from Miroirs; STRAVINSKY: Danse russe from Petrouchka; J.S. BACH (arr. Siloti): Prelude in b minor, BWV 855a – Emil Gilels, p. – DGG 479 6288, 74:47 (9/2/16) [Distr. by Universal] ****: 

Emil Gilels (1916-1985) appeared in Seattle’s Opera House 6 December 1964 as part of his fifth tour of the United States. The private tape of the recital, made with professional equipment, came under the aegis of Deutsche Grammophone via pianist Felix Gottlieb, a former pupil of Gilels who had established the Emil Gilels Foundation and who runs the Emil Gilels Festival in Freiburg im Breisgau. The surviving recital had to dispense with the Chopin Ballade No. 1, the recording of which had lost several moments.  Only the variations on Mozart by Chopin have ever appeared on records prior.

Despite somewhat distant microphone placement, the opening 1803 Waldstein Sonata reveals a virtuoso pianist in smart music.  The Gilels sonority in ostinato energy, runs, and trills penetrates deeply, and his capacity for liquid velocity seems limitless. Beethoven had conceived much of keyboard tessitura for his new Erard piano and its upward extension of the treble, and this expanded range of colors would inform the brilliant last movement. After the feverish first movement, the Introduzione: Adagio molto appears to meander, lost in a contemplative world of its own, rife with a plastic tension. Gilels moves the eerie figures along to their pre-conceived end, as a bridge to the rondo theme and its arpeggios that reflect the ostinati of the first movement. The originally gentle rondo theme – and Gilels can lull this theme provocatively – acquires increased velocity and violence as the dance progresses, and Gilels does not soften the tissue for the sake of sentiment. Almost needless to say, Gilels’ work at the Prestissimo coda leaves us agog.

Chopin was a sensationally gifted seventeen-year-old when he composed his (concertante) version of variants on Mozart’s aria from Don Giovanni, “La ci darem la mano.”  Flowers and velvet seem to pour forth form Gilels’ piano, given the innate bel canto of Chopin’s milieu. Each of the six variations bespeaks the course Chopin set for his body of work, from the bold declamations of an etude to the exquisite nocturne, to the lively polonaise to which has transformed Mozart’s original aria of bemused seduction. We might concur with Robert Schumann, who, in speaking of Chopin, proclaimed, “Hats off, gentlemen, a Genius!” and so say of Emil Gilels.

The music of Serge Prokofiev figured significantly in Emil Gilels’ personal history, his having been chosen to debut the Sonata No. 8. The dazzling seven minutes of Prokofiev’s a minor Sonata, Op. 28 open with Gilels’ Allegro tempestoso in triplets and then fortissimo to a second subject. Prokofiev claims that the subject matter comes “from old notebooks,” and that the contrast should come Moderato, tranquillo pianissimo, legato and semplice e dolce. Gilels seems a bit sanguine to allow the gentler aspects their intimacy. The original energies dominate, and Gilels moves with stupendous force to the monstrous climax, fortissimo and con elevazione. From the 1915-17 group of Visions fugitives Gilels proffers six, each vignette in color and dynamics, close to the terse spirit of Scriabin. Nos 1, 3, and 5 each sparkle with an ethereal impressionism. The accented dissonances of No. 11 always attract Gilels, who favors this study in contrary-motion scale patterns. No. 10 provides a jumpy etude marked Ridicolosamente. The last, Poetico, conveys an elusive veil of notes.

Quite a transition in color and dynamics as we enter Debussy’s rarified world, liquefied and sensuous in Reflets dans l’eau, the first of the three Images. Velocity in pearly points of light – by way of a perfect fifth – cascades exuberantly and then disperses.  The same canny pedal that illuminated the Beethoven now applies in Hommage a Rameau, whose subtle metrics slide delicately in the solemn harmony of a sarabande. Gilels deftly takes on “the implacable rhythm” of ostinato triplets for Mouvement, a study in what the composer calls “whimsical lightness.” Maurice Ravel makes his appearance as the last of the “formal” recital, with his Spanish piece de bravura, Alborada del gracioso, a piece Dinu Lipatti conquers totally. Castanets, guitar effects, and flamenco rhythms converge in a sultry brew from Gilels, who knows duende when he feels it. The audience explodes enough to warrant the two encores, of which the Danse russe bristles with manic authority. The Siloti arrangement of Bach’s b minor Prelude has served Gilels much as Traumerei worked for Horowitz. The lovely gradations of color and inflection add that sense of eternity of which the great pianists own the patent.

—Gary Lemco

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