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CD Review

Odd Couplings

EMI 69509
  • Ludwig van Beethoven:
  • Piano Concerto #5 "Emperor" in E Flat Major, Op. 73 (1809)
  • 32 Variations in C minor, WoO80
  • 12 Variations in A on a Russian Theme from Wranitzky's "Das Waldmädchen", WoO71
  • 6 Variations in D on a Turkish March from "The Ruins of Athens", Op. 76
  • Antonín Dvořák:
  • Symphony #8 in G Major
  • Three Slavonic Dances
Emil Gilels, piano
Cleveland Orchestra/George Szell
EMI 69509 ADD 2CDs 118:50
Find it at AmazonFind it at Amazon UKFind it at Amazon GermanyFind it at Amazon CanadaFind it at Amazon FranceFind it at Amazon Japan

I have to confess that I generally do not like the music making of George Szell. His recordings, particularly for what is now Sony, are dry and too mechanical to my ears. Of course, you might expect this coming from a Stokowski fan. I will say at the outset, then, that while I have a few quibbles, this set of CDs is an impressive offering, a great price, and highly recommended.

The Beethoven "Emperor" is from a complete cycle of the Beethoven Piano Concerti made in 1968. While I have heard, and been impressed by, his Brahms Piano Concerto recordings, I was not familiar with his Beethoven. At first I found his playing too percussive but the more I listened, the more I liked what I heard. Finally I wrote, "this is one impressive recording!" Gilels' digital prowess is stunning. He can be light when needed, but he is never really delicate. Firkušný, on the other hand (on EMI's Seraphim line) provides a valid alternative, one which is delicate and which I happen to like. Gilels sounds like he is more interested in the volcanic Beethoven, the intellectual, at the expense of the person. Many of you will disagree, and if you like your Beethoven "Emperor" in this manner, this is a hell of a performance. I would place this recording among my top five favorites. It is similar to Kempff/Leitner on DG, another of my top 5.

The solo piano pieces were a delight to listen to. It makes me realize that Gilels can play delicately when he senses the need for it. I was not previously familiar with the works and appreciated getting to know them.

Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra provide excellent accompaniment. The precision of the Cleveland instrument is awesome and in-kind with Gilels' perception. The sound is dryer here than in the Dvořák, but the strings are not shrill or steely (as in many of the, now Sony, earlier recordings).

This recording of Dvořák's 8th Symphony has been a favorite of mine since I purchased the LP years ago. The sound here is even sweeter tha in the Beethoven. Szell is also less metronomic than he tended to be earlier in his recordings with the Cleveland. Maybe EMI figured out how to get the clarity Szell wanted in recordings without resorting to the Death Valley dryness on the Columbia (now Sony) label. Szell brings to this piece, and the Slavonic Dances coupled with this disc, an idiomatic interpretation, full of spirit evoking images of a bucolic, Czech country side. Towards the end of his life I feel that Szell mellowed just a tad, enough to place his perfectionist tendencies just slightly in the back to allow more warmth in his playing.

Despite my niggling, I cannot imagine anyone being disappointed in this set. I look forward to listening to the remainder of this cycle of Beethoven Piano Concerti.

Copyright © 1997, Robert Stumpf II

Trumpet