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CD Review

Ludwig van Beethoven

EMI 86866
  • Piano Concerto #5 in E Flat Major "Emperor", Op. 73
  • Piano Sonata #8 in C minor "Pathétique", Op. 13
  • Piano Sonata #14 in C Sharp minor "Moonlight", Op. 27 #2
Bruno-Leonardo Gelber, piano
Philharmonia Orchestra/Ferdinand Leitner
EMI Classics 586866-2 ADD 69:04
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It is good to see these recordings back in print, particularly in EMI Classics' budget "Encore" series. The concerto was recorded in 1966, and the sonatas in 1973 and 1975. Gelber was born in Argentina in 1941; his heritage is Austrian and Franco-Italian. He began studying piano at 3, but was stricken with polio at 7. Despite having to spend a year in bed, young Gelber continued to play, and he made his radio debut a year later. He studied in Paris with Marguerite Long. He is less visible now than he was in the 1960s and 70s, and I hope that this reissue and its companions (see below) create new interest in this pianist, whose playing is never dull, and whose intelligence never flags.

The "Emperor" was awarded a "Grand Prix des Audiophiles" by the French magazine Diapason. For a 25-year-old – for any pianist, really – Gelber's musicianship is remarkably mature. Of affect there is plenty, but of mere effects there are none. The interpretation is expansive, emphasizing the music's noble heroism. (This is not a harsh or militant reading, however.) Toward the end of the outer movements, there is enough flexibility in tempo and phrasing to allow dramatic climaxes to be reached. This is a very satisfying performance, compromised only by the slightly glassy tone of the piano – not Gelber's fault. Leitner, whom one tends to think of as Deutsche Grammophon's "house conductor," is the pianist's equal partner, neither calling the performance's shots nor hanging deferentially in the background. My LP of this performance indicates that the orchestra is the "New" Philharmonia Orchestra; given the recording date, I think the LP is correct and the CD's documentation is slightly mistaken.

Turning to the sonatas, one notes that Gelber's playing is even more seasoned, yet without a whiff of routine. The recording quality is superior here too. Gelber refuses to sentimentalize the first movement of the "Moonlight" and the middle movement of the "Pathétique." There's ample power and excitement in the other movements, and yet there's no showing off, or cheapening of the music. Stephen Bishop-Kovacevich is the pianist whose approach seems most similar to Gelber's, although Gelber's temperament is warmer. The LP also included the "Appassionata" Because of time constraints, I assume, it had to be omitted here. I hope that EMI will find another home for it. There's more Gelber to be reissued, after all, including his excellent Schumann Carnaval and Etudes symphoniques.

Gelber's excellent Brahms piano concerto recordings have just been reissued, too: EMI Classics Encore 86867-2 (Concerto #1) and 86869-2 (Concerto #2). The conductors are Decker and Kempe, respectively.

At these prices, even if you have other recordings of these works, you should give a listen to Gelber.

Copyright © 2005, Raymond Tuttle

Trumpet