EMI Classics 0946 3 45820 2, 75:39 ****:
Vintage inscriptions 1954-1955 from Russian pianist Emil Gilels (1916-1985) contribute to EMI’s ongoing Great Recordings of the Century series, here assisted by French conductor Andre Cluytens (1905-1967). The pairing seems to me perfectly natural, since I always found Gilels’ taste and temperament to be Francophile. The Rachmaninov Concerto enjoys a delicately poised balance, with nice attention to rhythmic and color detail and a generous, vigorous lyricism which inform every bar, except those few excised from the third movement. The quality of piano sound, now fifty-years old (13 June 1955), more than holds up; it retains a liquid, sinewy fire thoroughly idiomatic to the Romantic Russian temper. Gilels opts for the shorter version of the cadenza, keeping acceleration without losing scale. If someone told me Kondrashin were the alternately suave, fiery conductor beside Gilels, I wouldn’t blink. Cluytens educes some soulful string work in the Intermezzo, just as he creates a swaddling cloud for Gilels’ sustained legato in the opening of the G Minor Saint-Saens Concerto. The Finale of the Rachmaninov is all glitter, powder and paint, bravura plus. Silky smooth runs and glissandos fly by almost more quickly than the ear can pick them up. Nice arpeggios against the con sordino horns. Polished, quicksilver, diaphanous without ever becoming brittle, Gilels’ tone and sonority continue to astonish.
The Saint-Saens G Minor Concerto (3 November 1954) provides opportunities for all kinds of digital gymnastics, but when executed tastefully, the result is musical charm united with buoyant energy. The rollicking Allegro scherzando mocks Chopin’s E Major Scherzo and points directly to Henri Litolff. The last movement Presto tarantella is played furioso, a demonstration of frisky pyrotechnics to make rivals weep. Gilels toured with the first, fifth, and twenty-fourth of the Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues, recording them in Paris 19-20 October 1955 (already issued on Testament SBT 1089). The D Major communicates a clarion sonority followed by a skittish, percussive fugue. The D Minor, with its epic proportions, heroic, somber, evocative perhaps of Schubert and Medtner, concludes a fitting tribute to Gilels, whom Rubinstein, in his first impression, had called “that redheaded Russian kid who can really play the piano.”