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Hyperion Records

APR5663 - Emil Gilels – Schumann, Beethoven, Liszt & Prokofiev

Recording details: Various dates
Moscow, Russia
Release date: May 2007
Total duration: 74 minutes 49 seconds

Emil Gilels – Schumann, Beethoven, Liszt & Prokofiev
No 10: Der Contrabandiste  [1'43]  recorded 1935
Book 2 No 3: Traumes Wirren  [2'10]  recorded 1937
No 5: Étude in E major 'La chasse'  [2'28]  recorded 1940
Allegro con brio  [9'01]  recorded 1952
Adagio  [7'51]  recorded 1952
Scherzo: Allegro  [2'45]  recorded 1952
Allegro assai  [4'50]  recorded 1952
Allegro ma non troppo  [6'03]  recorded 1950
Scherzo: Allegro marcato  [1'46]  recorded 1950
Andante  [4'49]  recorded 1950
Vivace  [4'17]  recorded 1950

This is a recording from Appian Publications & Recordings Ltd (to quote the full title)—the label invariably more familiarly known simply as "APR".

Since its foundation in 1986, APR has won an enviable reputation as a quality label devoted predominantly—though not exclusively—to historic piano recordings. In particular APR has won countless laurels for the high standard of its 78rpm restoration work—"Transfers of genius" to quote one critic—as well as the detail and content of its booklets.

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Emil Gilels was born in that remarkable musicians’ cradle, Odessa, to a poor and not overly musical family. However, as an infant he showed such an intense interest in the piano that he began studies with Yakov Tkatch, a pupil of Raoul Pugno. Even at such an early age, Tkatch observed that Gilels’s hands were ideal for the instrument and provided the boy with an exceptional technical grounding. Gilels’s debut, given at the age of thirteen and apparently not with Tkatch’s imprimatur, comprised a full-scale recital which included Beethoven’s ‘Pathétique’ Sonata and pieces by Chopin, Liszt, Scarlatti, Schumann and Mendelssohn.

Gilels then progressed to the Odessa Conservatoire to work with Berta Reingbald, a former student of that conservatoire and a professor there from 1933. She exerted a powerful personal and musical influence upon the young phenomenon, expanding his reper­toire, heightening his musical perceptions and fostering a love of chamber music – all this at a time when Gilels was frequently obliged to per­form light music in cafés in order to bolster the family’s precarious finances. Gilels’s first big break came when he won the 1931 Ukrainian Competition which earned him a welcome govern­ment scholarship. He went on to capture first prize at the First All-Union Contest of Musicians and Performers in Moscow in 1933 in sensational style. His ‘striking force of rhythm and sense of form in his playing, his unbending willpower, exuberant energy, emotional fresh­ness and spontaneity’ were unanimously recognized by a jury that included the Soviet Union’s three greatest teachers of piano: Golden­weiser, Neuhaus and Igumnov. The success catapulted Gilels to instant stardom and he embarked upon a gruelling round of touring for close on two years. Sensing that such activities were stunting his artistic develop­ment, he returned to Reingbald in Odessa and stayed with her until his graduation from the Conservatoire in 1935.

At that time it was more or less obligatory to move to Moscow in order to complete tuition and Gilels consequently entered the class of Heinrich Neuhaus. After an uncomfortable start – Neuhaus’s intellectual approach to tuition was in stark contrast to the rigorous regime of Reingbald – Gilels came to realize that Neuhaus had effected an added depth to his playing, that he had been set free as an artist. While based in Moscow Gilels went on to garner further awards: second prize at the 1936 Vienna International Competition of Pianists (where fellow Soviet Yakov Flier won first prize) and, perhaps his most remarkable competition victory, the 1938 International Ysaÿe Competition in Brussels. The teenager was among the youngest of almost 100 pianists from more than twenty countries to participate before a jury which included Arthur Rubin­stein, Walter Gieseking and Emil von Sauer. To all the assembled jurists it was apparent that here was a pianist in the Anton Rubinstein mould; an unusually powerful and muscular player who simultaneously enabled passages of poetry and lyricism to take flight. In short, Emil Gilels, and to a lesser extent Flier who took third prize in Brussels, spearheaded a new wave of Soviet pianists.

Gilels was poised to commence his inter­national career with a visit to the USA when the Second World War intervened. Confined to the Soviet Union, he toured extensively inclu­ding flying into besieged Leningrad in 1943. During these difficult years Gilels premiered several new Soviet works and played much chamber music, frequently appearing with his sister Yelisaveta, brother-in-law Leonid Kogan and Mstislav Rostropovich. In 1939 he also formed an acclaimed piano duo with another Odessa-trained and Neuhaus-refined pupil, Yakov Zak (the majority of their duo recordings will appear in this series). Gilels toured Eastern Europe in 1947 and was soon appearing on many juries – he was Chair of the first and third Tchaikovsky Piano Competitions – though it was not until 1955 that he eventually made his USA debut, apparently the first appearance of a Soviet musician in North America for more than three decades. (He had made his first somewhat low-key UK appearance in 1952.)

Although not a political animal Gilels joined the communist party. It was an astute move in that his membership extricated him from the lethal political manoeuvrings that were part of everyday Soviet life, while his obvious status raised him above petty restric­tions. For instance, he performed Medtner’s music at a time when it was officially banned and his influence was crucial in securing the release of his former tutor Neuhaus when the latter was imprisoned on a charge trumped up by the KGB in 1941. Gilels’s first partner (sources vary as to whether they were actually married) was another piano phenomenon, Rosa Tamarkina who died in 1950 aged only thirty. (Some of her sensational recordings will be featured in this series.) His marriage to Farizeth resulted in his pianist daughter Elena being born in 1948; father and daughter later recorded and appeared together in public. Gilels was also a spasmodic and, truth to tell, half-hearted teacher. He briefly joined the staff of the Moscow Conservatoire in 1938 and rejoined in 1952 during which time he influenced, among others, Vladimir Block, Marina Mdivani and Igor Zhukov.

Gilels’s artistry falls into three recog­niz­able phases. The early years, as demonstrated by the recordings of the 1930s and 1940s, reflect the influence of Tkatch and Reingbald rather than Neuhaus. They reveal a breath­taking virtuosity and fearless risk-taking usually via fast tempi and extreme dynamics. At times Gilels’s approach borders on the brutal and there remained occasional glimpses of this tendency in later years, to the extent that some in the Soviet Union, albeit a minority, referred to him as ‘the butcher’. ‘Middle period’ Gilels, from the 1950s and 1960s, witnessed an irresistible balance of virtuosity and musician­ship after which he was given more to reflective maturity, though never at any period in his career was there any diminution of his leonine technique. His respect for ‘technique’ per se is understandable. It was ground into him as a boy by Tkatch and consolidated by Reingbald. It was the very bedrock of his artistry. (It is revealing to discover his veneration for another technically unchallenged pianist, Vladimir Horowitz.)

Gilels made numerous and diverse studio recordings during a fifty year period (1935–1985). If they do not always have the tingling electricity (and startling spills!) of some of his live performances published since his death, many remain benchmark documents, such as Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, Schumann’s Nachtstücke or the Liszt Sonata. In common with many of his Soviet contemporaries and immediate successors, Gilels’s repertoire was vast: from Bach and Mozart to Smetana and Bartók via many Russian and Soviet composers including Alyabiev, Borodin, Cui, Glazunov, Kabalevsky, Medtner, Scriabin, Shostakovich, Vainberg and Vladi­gerov. Among Soviet composers it is Prokofiev with whom he is most closely con­nected. Gilels first heard the composer-pianist perform in Odessa in 1927; seventeen years later he was the dedicatee of Prokofiev’s eighth Sonata which he first performed in 1944. This score, together with the second (his dazzling March 1950 recording completes this prog­ramme) and third Sonatas plus the third Piano Concerto were rarely out of his reper­toire. That Gilels was also a peerless Beet­hoven­ian is apparent from his many concerto and sonata recordings. His first (1952) recording of the C major Sonata is a startling precursor of what was to come.

Bryan Crimp © 2007

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