Piotr Il’yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Piano concerto no.1 in B flat minor, op.23 (1875) [31:13]
Piano concerto no.2 in G major, op.44 (1880) [33:26]
Emil Gilels (piano)
Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano della RAI/Fernando Previtali (op.23)
Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra/Kirill Kondrashin (op.44)
rec. venues not stated; 3 February 1959 (op.23) and 23 December 1959 (op.44)

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 supplier.

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 disposition.

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.

Rob Maynard

Even artistic giants can sometimes have feet of clay.