We completists are an obsessive bunch. Given news of an undiscovered
Toscanini performance or a newly unearthed recording of Heifetz,
we're straight onto the internet or on the phone to a specialist
So here's a new offering for those who just have to own every
single Emil Gilels performance that they can get their hands
on - though I'm afraid that it's unlikely, quite frankly, to
be of much interest to anyone else.
Gilels completists will already have a great number of accounts
of these works on their shelves. The discography on the authoritative
memorial website www.emilgilels.com
lists no less than 16 complete recordings of the first Tchaikovsky
concerto between 1947 and 1980 and four of the second (two from
1959 and two more from 1972).
Other than describing their recordings as being of live performances
given in February 1959 (concerto no.1) and December 1959 (concerto
no.2), Istituto Discografico Italiano's utterly minimal annotation
tells us nothing about their provenance. The website discography
suggests, however, that the first concerto was recorded in Milan
– presumably, given the orchestra involved, for radio transmission
- and has since circulated widely, with previous CD incarnations
on the Arkadia, Hunt, Classica Musica, WJM and Urania labels.
The recording of the second concerto is rather more problematical.
The website discography lists a live performance with these
forces from 1959 that has previously appeared on an EMI LP and
on an MK CD. However, given the very seriously flawed performance,
as detailed below, I find it really difficult to believe that
EMI would have given their prestigious imprimatur to this particular
account. Perhaps, one might speculate, it comes instead from
a second performance given in the same concert season? I welcome
any further enlightenment on this point from anyone in possession
of the EMI or MK issues.
The sad fact is that both Gilels’ playing and the recording
quality are insufficiently distinguished to make these accounts
worthy of anything more than cursory attention. Ay pianist can
have a bad day – but here Gilels appears to have been having
a couple of them, with playing nowhere near his usually consistently
high standard. While careless fingerwork may be excused in the
white heat of a live performance, this will not do for repeated
listening. And the fact that, at about 3:39 into the finale
of the G major concerto he seems to go completely awry for about
10 seconds, throwing the orchestra into confusion and nearly
derailing the whole performance, rules his account completely
out of court except for anyone seeking a graphic illustration
of a lapse in concentration or memory or simply of a sadistic
The sound quality leaves much to be desired, too. Dull, lifeless
and lacking in any sort of bloom in the first concerto, it becomes
clangorous and shrill to an extent that makes it positively
unpleasant to listen to the piano in the second.
An issue for diehard Gilels admirers only, then, though an interesting
piece of evidence to demonstrate that even artistic giants can
sometimes have feet of clay.