Once upon a time (almost half a century ago, to be exact), there were two Soviet pianists who were, because of the reputations that preceded them, the subjects of intense curiosity in the United States. One was Sviatoslav Richter. The other was Emil Gilels. Eventually, both of them arrived in America. Until that time, pianophiles and record collectors had to content themselves with muffled Soviet recordings, and with tapes from live concerts. The latter, in particular, were passed from fan to fan with a mixture of secrecy and awe, as if the tapes were suppressed relics, icons from Russian Orthodox churches.
This CD preserves a recital that Gilels gave in Florence, Italy on November 6, 1951. At that time, the pianist was in his mid-30s, and still four years away from his first appearance in the United States.
It is easy to hear what all the excitement was about. Gilels was a pianist who inspired awe in his audiences. One is reminded of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, where Isabella exclaims, "O, it is excellent/To have a giant's strength, but it is tyrannous/To use it like a giant." Gilels had the technique of a giant, but the moderation of a philosopher. His power came from what he restrained as much as from what he expressed.
His Mozart sonata is full of manly pathos. Animated but not nervous, and rapt in the long middle movement, Gilels's straight-ahead interpretation represents modern-style Mozart playing at its best. The Beethoven "Appassionata" is similarly free of hysterics, and Gilels lets the phrases breathe without deforming them. A few missed notes, unacceptable on a studio recording, are understandable here, given the difficulty of the writing. (I've heard this sonata sound like a train-wreck live.) Best of all is the Prokofieff, which is witty and coolly lyrical. Gilels's performance of this sonata is more clear-headed and seductive than any I've previously heard. The recital ends with what I presume were encores. The Rachmaninoff is played with impressionistic half-tints, and the Balakirev brings the house down with its power, accuracy, and, above all, musicality.
The sound-quality, while not up to modern standards, never hides what a memorable occasion this recital was.
This disc is easy to recommend to admirers of Gilels, and to pianophiles in general.
Copyright © 2002, Raymond Tuttle