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Emil Gilels Live in Moscow - Volume 5
Piotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor, Op. 23 (1877) [33:01].
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54 (1845) [33:57]
Arabesque, Op. 18 (1838) [7:10].
Emil Gilels (piano)
USSR State Symphony Orchestra/Vladimir Verbitsky.
rec. live, Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, Russia, 1966 (Tchaikovsky); 1976 (Schumann).
Mono. NTSC. Region Code 0
VAI 4471 [74:10]
Experience Classicsonline

VAI has been issuing a number of high-interest DVDs recently (see review list). A whole sequence of Van Cliburn issues has been particularly notable.
The Gilels Tchaikovsky First here is in old, grainy black and white, with hints of white-out, an orchestra that auto-recesses over a particular dynamic level, or distorts (or both). The television cameras look like coffins for pets. We can see a young-looking Gilels, though, the corners of the screen faded like an old photograph. Over and above all of this is the fact that this is an invaluable document. Gilels is on top form, showing no trace of fear in the face of Tchaikovsky’s onslaught and providing moments of heightened delicacy. Double-octaves are delivered with machine-gun efficiency and yet never unmusically. Gilels’ playing seems innately Tchaikovskian.
The slow movement is rather hampered by the initial pizzicati being all but inaudible so the close-up of Verbitsky is all but useless prior to the entrance of the solo flute. Gilels’ first entrance honours Tchaikovsky’s direction of “Andantine semplice” perfectly in his delivery of line. There is a glowing cello solo that Gilels accompanies superbly. Distortion mars the opening of the finale – a shame, as this is high-voltage stuff. Gilels’ articulation is jaw-droppingly good, as is his projection of the brief moments of counterpoint. The final moments include some fine pianism.
Camera-work attempts some nice moves: a slow - but not particularly steady - pan across the firsts lands on Gilels just as he makes an entrance, for example. Be aware that if watched straight through, the DVD goes directly into Gilels walking on stage ten years later for the Schumann. There’s virtually no gap.
There are around 16 currently available Tchaikovsky Firsts from Gilels, with conductors of the calibre of Kondrashin, Mravinsky, Svetlanov, Gauk, Reiner, Cluytens and Ančerl.
The Schumann is in colour, the picture slightly blurred. The fact that the first orchestral chord is not together gets things off to a shaky start - an errant timpanist is most obviously to blame here. Gilels, however, is magnificently chameleon-like, chamber music-intimate one moment, the concert hall virtuoso a split second later. There are some magnificent woodwind contributions. Visually, it is a pity there are huge microphone stands everywhere as they can inter-cut the screen. An example is when we see the two flutes; indeed, there is one right next to Gilels which, from one angle, looks like there is a bar running parallel to the bottom of the keyboard. The first movement cadenza is rock-solid, and both Gilels and Verbitsky capture the flighty nature of the coda perfectly. Interesting how far Gilels’ hands fly off the keyboard at each of the final piano/orchestra chords.
The central movement is remarkably swift, and emerges as almost improvised. The wind solos are hardly audible, though, and for extended periods the camera sticks to a shot of Verbitsky (foreground) and Gilels (background, screen left). Many will surely feel the tempo for the finale is too slow. It is more a gentle Allegretto (at best) rather than an Allegro vivace, but it fits perfectly with Gilels’ view. Gilels’ fingerwork reveals his Russianness. Fingers of iron mean absolute equality, and there is a multitude of exquisite moments from the keyboard. Gilels’ tone can best be described as “glassy” and seems perfect in context. Only at the very end of the concerto, with some very staccato string chords, does the dryness of the recording really seem problematic.
Beginnings aside, Verbitsky is a sensitive interpreter. There are only two recordings of Gilels in the Schumann Concerto, this one and an LSO/Böhm from Salzburg in 1975 that has been available on Andante 4030.
The enthusiastic audience response demands an encore, and Gilels obliges: a Gilels favourite, the Arabesque in C, Op. 18 - there are at least three Gilels accounts of this available. The playing is stunning, taking the already excellent standard we heard in the Concerto up a notch. Contrasts are exquisite.
Considerations of sound and picture quality stop this being a first recommendation in the Tchaikovsky, but followers of Gilels should not hesitate.
Colin Clarke


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