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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No.5 in E flat major, Op.73 Emperor [39:49]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Prelude in B minor BWV 855a (arr. Alexander Siloti) [3:58]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat major, Op.83 [48:28]
Emil Gilels (piano) (Beethoven, Bach)
Bruno Leonardo Gelber (piano) (Brahms)
NHK Symphony Orchestra/Wolfgang Sawallisch
rec. live, NHK Hall, Tokyo, 20 April 1978 (CD 1); 9 April 1980 (CD 2)
KING INTERNATIONAL KKC2022/3 [44:01 + 48:28]

Of late, the enterprising Japanese label King International have been issuing some very interesting live concerts by renowned artists. We are very lucky that they are being distributed in the UK; this unlike many Japanese labels we can only wish for in envy.
The present two-disc sets feature eminent conductors and soloists who have performed in Japan with that illustrious group of musicians, the NHK Symphony Orchestra. I was very excited at the prospect of reviewing this set, as it features one of the greatest pianists of the twentieth century and certainly one of my favorites, Emil Gilels. Born in Odessa, now part of Ukraine, in 1916, Gilels did not hail from a particularly musical family, but they had a piano. The young Emil took to the instrument and underwent strict musical training in his formative years, as was the way in Russia in those days. After graduating from the Odessa Conservatory in 1935, he went on to study with the great Soviet pianist and pedagogue Heinrich Neuhaus in Moscow. His conscientiousness and early grounding in scales and arpeggios formed the foundation of his magnificent technique. Gilels was to become a keyboard titan. His, however, was not just a fabulous technique; his tremendous gifts were dedicated to the service of the music he was playing. He did not let technique stand in the way of good taste and style, and his interpretations were always free of mannerisms and eccentricities.
The adjective which comes to mind when listening to the opening cadenza of the Beethoven concerto featured here is ‘magisterial’. It’s an apt description for a grand concerto nicknamed Emperor, though this was not Beethoven’s title. All the same, it sets the scene for what is to follow. This is truly an aristocratic performance. I have always greatly admired the spiritual depth of Gilels’ Beethoven, and of the twenty or so complete sets of his piano sonatas I confess to possessing, I would place Gilels’ cycle, albeit incomplete (he only recorded 27 out of the 32 due to his untimely death in 1985), in the top three of my favourites. In the performance of the concerto here, this spiritual approach is evident. He penetrates to the emotional core of the work and has an instinctive understanding of its architectural structure. There is contrast between the grandeur and bravura technique required in the first and third movements and the imaginative way he scales down his playing to shape the phrases in the second movement. In the latter he finds eloquence, sensitivity, subtlety and beauty of tone. Yet, all the while, the tenderness he elicits is completely devoid of sickly sentimentality. Here is playing which is truly top-drawer. Sawallisch is a worthy collaborator, also understanding the architecture of the work, and he sustains the momentum throughout. He inspires the orchestra to give an involved and committed performance, and the sound he draws from them is warm and vibrant. This is a truly great live performance. You certainly get the feeling that both pianist and conductor are at one. As an encore, Gilels gives a beautiful rendition of the Bach B minor Prelude BWV 855a, in a transcription by Alexander Siloti.
The Beethoven Concerto here is in a different class to the live recording of the same work from December 1976, in which Gilels is partnered by Kurt Masur and the USSR State Symphony Orchestra (Brilliant Classics 92132/2) which has a harsh, over-bright sound with a lot of audience noise. Masur, unlike Sawallisch, is very routine and uninvolved and does not inspire Gilels. The result is perfunctory and uninspired. Similarly the 1958 live performance from Prague with the Czech Philharmonic under Kurt Sanderling is in poor sound. The whole thing is rushed and ragged, and sounds under-rehearsed. I found the bronchial afflictions of some of the audience, further marred the effect: Multisonic 31 0106.
I recently heard on German radio a live broadcast of the Emperor from 2006. It was with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Colin Davis and featured the second pianist on this CD, Bruno Leonardo Gelber. It was my first encounter with his playing and it was a wonderful performance, leaving a very favorable impression indeed. I thought to myself that I would have to explore this pianist’s work further, so I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered that the performer here in the Brahms Second Piano Concerto was none other than Gelber. Once again we are given a magisterial performance. I love the exquisite voicing of the opening chords of the first movement and the dramatic way he energises the work after the orchestral tutti. Gelber is large- scaled and shows he has the technique to meet the tremendous challenges that this concerto presents. Sawallisch’s reading is likewise big-boned and both pianist and conductor were obviously inspired by the occasion. Both tempi and dynamics are well-judged throughout and the orchestral sound is immediate and marked by clarity, especially in the woodwind section. I particularly liked the cello solo at the start of the third movement which sets the tender mood for the entrance of the piano. The fourth movement ends the work in a blaze of glory.
These are memorable versions of two of the mainstays of the German classical concerto repertoire. The sound is excellent throughout and audience noise is minimal, in no way, intrusive and we can relish the spontaneity of a live event. Booklet notes are in Japanese only, however, but a profile of the orchestra is given in English.
Stephen Greenbank

Masterwork Index: Beethoven concerto 5 ~~ Brahms concerto 2