Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major Op. 15 (1797) [34:02]
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major Op. 19 (1793 rev. 1794-95) [27:56]
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major Op. 58 (1805-06) [33:02]
Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat major Op. 73 Emperor (1809) [38:43]
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor Op. 37 (1800) [33:39]
Piano Sonata No. 12 in A flat major, Op. 26 March Funebre [19:52]
Piano Sonata No. 16 in G major, Op. 31 No. 1 [24:50]
Emil Gilels (piano)
State Symphony Orchestra of the USSR/Kurt Masur
rec. live, Moscow, December 1976. ADD
Brilliant Russian Archives
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 94291 [3 CDs: 61:51 + 71:55 + 78:41]

These recordings date from the long sustained era (1964-80) of USSR Premier Alexei Kosygin alongside Brezhnev and Podgorny. Gilels, like Oistrakh, was born in Odessa and was to die in Moscow in 1985, broadly a decade after these recordings were made and five years after the death of Kosygin. Between 1968 and 1970 Gilels recorded all five concertos in the studio for EMI with Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra. It was an iconic set which must have sold in its tens of thousands. I recall it being featured as the lure in many a Sunday Supplement advert all the way through to the end of the 1970s and beyond. It was once reissued in two parts on EMI Classics Fforte but has had puzzlingly little presence since.

Brilliant have licensed the present, more recent, recordings – made for radio at live concerts with audiences present - from Gostelradiofund. They are not new to disc and were reviewed by Jonathan Woolf as part of a six disc all-Gilels all-Beethoven set in 2004. The conductor is Kurt Masur in his pre-NYPO days. The forthright recordings place the sound confidently in the foreground. Gilels and Masur play and shape their roles likewise. There is delicacy but Gilels is also a master of dignified virtuoso brilliance as the exuberantly sprung finales of the First and Second Concertos tell us. The presence of the audience is obvious enough from the occasional cough. There are creaks, page-turns and all the usual detritus attendant on the presence of people. None of that diminishes the listener’s pleasure in these ripely enjoyable readings which only turn a shade shrill at fortissimo.

These are manly interpretations where the musculature is never for one moment in doubt. It is sensed amid the benign waterfalls of notes or in tender thoughtfulness. The orchestral playing is tight as a drum and rhythmically alive – try the finale of No. 4. Masur keeps things moving at a fundamental level in The Emperor and this carries over into the Adagio. Some may find this pressing forward too much of a good thing. It’s certainly an antidote to the excessive soft-focus romantic drift beloved of some. This passionate acceleration and brilliance of execution can also be felt in the Third Concerto and it is much to the work’s advantage.

I have a high regard for Rudolf Serkin whose stirring BBC Radio 3 broadcast of the Fourth with the New Philharmonia/Maazel on 7 November 1976 I am pleased still to have accessible. Friedrich Gulda champions the concertos in the Beethoven complete Edition on Brilliant Classics (ex-Decca) and suits me better than the long-established 1970s Philip cycle by Stephen Bishop-Kovacevich and the 1960s DG from Wilhelm Kempff. Gilels by no means turns his back on the cerebral but the emphasis is on the euphoric – on excitement. As for the two sonatas they are played full-on as if he Gilels was still in contention with an orchestra. The effect in these solo works is a distillation of grandeur; noble, propulsive and compelling in No. 12 Op. 26 and more classically placid in No. 16 Op. 31 No. 1.

This set is well worth exploring providing you are not allergic to a spray of audience noise.

Rob Barnett

Ripely enjoyable analogue recordings of these exciting readings.