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Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb International, December 2008

APR has an ‘early years’ Gilels disc to its credit - see review – one that takes in a selection of recordings made between 1935 and 1955. There is some overlap but the substantial works are not duplicated which means that the Mozart sonata K457 is on this Naxos entrant whereas APR has two big sonata statements in the form of Beethoven’s Op.2 No. 3 and Prokofiev’s Sonata No.2 in D minor. Non-specialists who wish to acquire examples of Gilels’s earliest 1935 recordings will therefore be faced with a dilemma with regard to the Loeillet-Godowsky and all the three Schumanns. I can help with recommendations. The APR preserves and attempts to ameliorate as far as is possible the hollow and disappointing Moscow recording but can’t do much with it. The Naxos can. It sounds very, very much better—clarity, definition (you can hear the bass definition at long last) and what sounds like comprehensive re-pitching ensure that these are now the transfers of choice for this body of recordings.

The Loeillet-Godowsky is a charming sliver of elemental pianism, dispatched with bravura confidence and control. Its companion, the Schumann-Tausig Der Kontrabandiste is similarly vital and engrossing a performance. The Toccata was made in the same year, a reading of headlong dynamism and speed. The performance is not flattered by the sonics but that’s no impediment to the coruscating virtuosity of the playing. For my taste it’s a rather unrelenting and steamrollering performance that misses the playfulness at the music’s core but there’s no doubting the digital mastery on show.

Much better is the Mozart sonata. Even though on his own admission he played relatively little Mozart in his early days—Neuhaus, his teacher, didn’t push the composer – this is a warmly aerated and textured, fully romanticised reading. His second movement rubati are especially noteworthy as is Gilels’s thoroughly masculine sense of the sonata’s projection.

The Mendelssohn brace offers a light-fingered Scherzo and a warmly consoling Song without Words. The Rameau is fashioned with verdantly romantic generosity whilst the Smetana dances were a souvenir of his encounter with them on a recent concert tour of Czechoslovakia. Unlike Mozart Neuhaus did teach Debussy. There’s an example of Clair de lune—auspicious —and English pianist Leonard Borwick’s manful arrangement of Fêtes for solo piano. This was a piece that Gilels was playing in concert frequently around 1937, the time of the recording. The three movements from Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin reinforce the Gallic affiliations—though these, incomplete though the recording was, followed later in 1950.

There are good notes as usual from Jonathan Summers. The repertoire selection is equally good and the superior transfers ensure a warm welcome.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, October 2008

Outside of his native Russia, the pianist Emil Gilels remained largely unknown until he his was in his thirties, his younger years now charted in a series of important recordings. Making his debut at the age of twelve as a child prodigy, he  was shielded from a premature career by his astute mentors, eventually releasing him at nineteen to take the major prize in a series of major competitions. The cultural divide that separated the Soviet Union from the West prevented free travel, Gilels only allowed to accept engagements outside of the Communist countries in the 1950s. Though he was then hailed as one of the outstanding pianists of his time, he could only find a place among a whole new generation of virtuosos who had emerged in the meantime. The present release covers those years behind the Iron Curtain, the earliest coming from 1935 when he was nineteen and anxious to demonstrate his agile fingers. His Schumann Toccata and Spanisches Liederspiel are a joy to hear, but two years later he was almost pushing his technique a little too far in a virtuoso transcription of Debussy’s Fetes from the orchestral work, Nocturnes. The disc takes us through the 78 era to the early 1950 Melodiya LPs, and a beautiful and unaffected account of Mozart’s Fourteenth Piano Sonata. But my particular favourite are the two movements from Rameau’s E minor Suite for Harpsichord, the first time I have really enjoyed Baroque music played on a modern piano. Godowsky, Mendelssohn and Smetana feature in the disc, three superbly played sections from Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin to a memorable conclusion. The sound is amazingly good for its age, Ward Marston performing another supreme piece of restoration.

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