Emil Gilels: Early Recordings, Vol. 3
Domenico SCARLATTI (1685-1757)
Sonata in A, K533, L395 [3:08]
Sonata in D minor, K141, L422 [4:18]
Sonata in C, K159, L104 [1:58]
Sonata in B minor, K27, L449 [4:18]
Sonata in G, K125, L487 [2:11]
Sonata in E, K380, L23 [5:07]
Sonata in A, K113, L345 [3:46]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Fantasia on themes from Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro (arr. Busoni) [13:15]
Grandes études de Paganini, S141: Nos 3 (La Campanella) and 5 (La chasse) [7:00]
Hungarian Rhapsody No 6 [6:12]
Hungarian Rhapsody No 9, Pesther Carneval [10:24]
Fryderyk CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Polonaise in A, Op. 40 No.1 [3:04]
Polonaise in A flat, Op.53 [6:36]
Ballade No 1 in G minor, Op.23 [8:27]
Emil Gilels (piano)
rec. 1935 (Liszt/Busoni), 1937 (Polonaise Op.53), 1940 (La chasse), 1945 (La campanella, Polonaise Op.40/1), 15 October 1946 (Ballade), 11 June 1949 (Rhapsody No 6), 9 May 1951 (Rhapsody No.9), 5 September 1955 (Scarlatti)
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.111386 [79:37]
Emil Gilels lovers, be on high alert: Gilels playing Scarlatti! This rare combination is, so far as I know, only to be had on one other disc, a BBC Legends live recital from the early 1980s. Here we have Gilels playing the same Scarlatti sonatas, but in the mid-1950s, in really pretty good sound for the era, excellently restored. Gilels’ Scarlatti is magical: pianistic in its drama and color, but classical in its tempo and clarity. To achieve piano nirvana, compare Gilels’ B minor sonata K27 to Yevgeny Sudbin’s, or the E major K380 performances of Gilels, Pletnev, Bjelland, Tharaud, and Lipatti. Am I saying Gilels’ Scarlatti is worthy of comparison with these greats? Yes, yes I am. The opening measures of K380 make an indelible impression with their evocation of tolling bells, and the rest has an enviable fluidity and natural clarity; the B minor has poetry and expansiveness, though not as radical as Sudbin’s.
The rest of the disc is fantastic too. The Liszt fantasia on Le nozze de Figaro (completed by Busoni) showcases Gilels’ trademark combination of bravura and good taste: he doesn’t barnstorm through but shapes the piece as a truly operatic fantasy. He doesn’t even burn through the two Paganini etudes, although I have to say his low-key approach cannot reclaim the musical value of the ‘La campanella’ etude from decades of self-aggrandizing virtuosi who have hijacked it in the decades since. His Hungarian Rhapsodies (6 and 9) are very good, even if they don’t knock your jaw clean to the floor. There are a couple technical slips, but mostly I can’t say his rhapsodies are better than, say, Jando’s. Little surprise to find that he hardly ever played them again.
The Chopin’s another story again: the two polonaises are in noble, gallant readings, with the legendary ‘Heroic’ Op 53 showcasing Gilels’ command of the epic and care over detail at once. The Ballade is excellently done, with real poetry and gentleness when called for but a powerfully angry final minute (those haunting quiet chords in the coda are excellently rendered). It rounds out a generous 80 minutes of fascinating playing.
Ward Marston’s sound restoration is heroic as always. The Scarlatti, from a 1955 Melodiya LP, sounds genuinely good, as does ‘Pesther Carnaval’; on the other hand, the final two Chopin selections are a bit constricted in piano tone and the Mozart/Liszt/Busoni fantasy is in sadly primitive shape. Hisses and pops are gone or reduced, but without any loss in presence for the piano itself, which is a relief; the only hint of extraneous noise aside from the Mozart/Liszt/Busoni is at the end of the last track. The booklet notes don’t discuss the music much, but are very helpful to Gilels collectors and others interested in the provenance of the recordings. For casual listeners, the rewards of these excellent recordings are to be had in the hearing.
Brian Reinhart 

Reviews of the other Gilels volumes on Naxos Historical

A treasury of great early Gilels recordings, including very rare and very good Scarlatti, and a newly-discovered reading of a Chopin ballade.