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ClassicsOnline Home » GILELS, Emil: Early Recordings, Vol. 1 (1935-1951)
Emil Gilels was one of the greatest Russian pianists of the twentieth century, born in Odessa in 1916. The recordings on this first disc of his early recordings, made in the USSR, come from the first stage of Gilels’s career and include his first known recordings from 1935. Leopold Godowsky’s arrangement of the Gigue by Jean-Baptiste Loeillet immediately shows the immense power the nineteen-year old Gilels had at the keyboard. His playing, especially in his youth, was fiery, volatile and exciting, and even late in his career it still retained the grandeur and sweep of a great master in the Russian tradition.
By David Denton
Outside of his native Russia, the pianist Emil Gilels remained largely unknown until he his was in his thirties, his younger years now charted in a series of important recordings. Making his debut at the age of twelve as a child prodigy, he was shielded from a premature career by his astute mentors, eventually releasing him at nineteen to take the major prize in a series of major competitions. The cultural divide that separated the Soviet Union from the West prevented free travel, Gilels only allowed to accept engagements outside of the Communist countries in the 1950s. Though he was then hailed as one of the outstanding pianists of his time, he could only find a place among a whole new generation of virtuosos who had emerged in the meantime. The present release covers those years behind the Iron Curtain, the earliest coming from 1935 when he was nineteen and anxious to demonstrate his agile fingers. His Schumann Toccata and Spanisches Liederspiel are a joy to hear, but two years later he was almost pushing his technique a little too far in a virtuoso transcription of Debussy’s Fetes from the orchestral work, Nocturnes. The disc takes us through the 78 era to the early 1950 Melodiya LPs, and a beautiful and unaffected account of Mozart’s Fourteenth Piano Sonata. But my particular favourite are the two movements from Rameau’s E minor Suite for Harpsichord, the first time I have really enjoyed Baroque music played on a modern piano. Godowsky, Mendelssohn and Smetana feature in the disc, three superbly played sections from Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin to a memorable conclusion. The sound is amazingly good for its age, Ward Marston performing another supreme piece of restoration.
Great Pianists: Emil Gilels (1916–1985)
Early Recordings • 1 (1935-1951)
One of the greatest Russian pianists of the twentieth century, Emil Gilels was born in Odessa in 1916. Although his parents were not professional musicians, his father was an amateur musician and all the children played instruments. At the age of six Emil was taken by his half-sister to begin piano lessons with Yakov Tkach, a pupil of Raoul Pugno. In 1929 Bertha Reingbald, a teacher from the Institute of Music and Drama in Odessa, heard the twelve-year old Gilels’s début and was greatly impressed with the young boy. She became his teacher and, although he was too young to enter the National Competition of the Ukraine in Kharkov, Gilels’s playing at the time of that competition resulted in a scholarship in 1931 from the Ukrainian government. Reingbald then prepared Gilels for the All- Union Competition for Performing Musicians which he won in 1933 at the age of sixteen and immediately took on many concert engagements for which he was not adequately prepared, as he had not had time to develop his repertoire. He returned to Odessa and Reingbald staying with her until the summer of 1935. It can be said that Tkach provided a purely technical training whilst Reingbald instilled the musical attributes; Gilels said of her, ‘At that time, in fact, she was my musical mother’. In 1935 after graduating in Odessa, Gilels moved to Moscow to study with Heinrich Neuhaus at the Moscow Conservatory.
In 1936 Gilels came second to Yakov Flier in the International Piano Competition in Vienna, and two years later won the prestigious Ysaÿe Competition in Brussels. The outbreak of World War II prevented his American début in 1939, and the first time he played outside the Soviet Union after the War was in Czechoslovakia in 1948, then in Poland, and he first played in the West in 1951 in Italy.
The recordings on this compact disc were made in the USSR and all come from the first stage of Gilels’s career. It should be noted that it is difficult to date recordings made in the USSR from this period with any accuracy as access to recording session logs and discographical material is limited. Gilels’s first recordings were made in 1935 and the arrangement of the Gigue by Jean-Baptiste Loeillet, which comes from Leopold Godowsky’s Renaisssance Suite written between 1906 and 1909, immediately shows the immense power the young Gilels had at the keyboard. He had performed this work at the time of the National Competition of the Ukraine in Kharkov in 1931 and he also played Godowsky’s arrangement of the Fugue and Presto from the Violin Sonata in G minor by Bach during the 1930s. Also from the 1935 sessions come the recordings of Schumann’s Der Kontrabandiste arranged by Carl Tausig (once a popular work, it was also recorded by Josef Lhevinne in 1921, Naxos 8.110681) and the Toccata Op. 7 in which Gilels displays an already secure and solid technique: he played it at his final graduation examination concert in Odessa in November 1935.
The next recording sessions took place in 1937 when Gilels recorded more Schumann—a feather-light Traumes Wirren from Fantasiestücke Op. 12, and some French music including Fêtes (from the orchestral work Nocturnes) by Debussy in an arrangement for solo piano by English pianist Leonard Borwick (1868–1925) who also made a transcription of the same composer’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. Gilels played this solo version of Fêtes at a concert in Moscow in December 1938, and in 1940 played the arrangement for two pianos by Ravel with Jacob Zak in Leningrad. When speaking of French music in Russia in the 1930s Gilels said, ‘At that time the Impressionists in Odessa were very modern, almost the last word in music. In addition to this the music was difficult to obtain. I was only able to borrow the music of Ravel’s Toccata for a single night. My sister and my father spent that whole night copying it out, and from this copy I learned Ravel’s Toccata; it was with this piece that I won the first prize in Moscow in 1933.’ Gilels recorded three movements from Ravel’s suite Le Tombeau de Couperin in 1950 including the Toccata, and they can be heard here along with Debussy’s Clair de lune from 1946.
Gilels played very little of Mozart’s music in his early career. He explained that when he was young, ‘…we did not play the Brahms concertos in Russia. And even with Neuhaus we played very little Brahms, Schubert or Mozart…He also liked Debussy very much…’ It would appear that the first recording Gilels made of a Mozart piano sonata was the Sonata in C minor K. 457 heard here. It is muscular and incisive in the outer movements and full-toned in the slow movement. At this time he also programmed the Piano Sonata in B flat K. 570 at his concerts.
Gilels had played Mendelssohn’s Scherzo in E minor Op. 16 No. 2 at his first public concert in June 1929 in Odessa at the age of twelve. The 1940 recording made when he was 24 has a scintillating clarity. The Polkas by Czech composer Bedřich Smetana did not feature on Gilels’s programmes before 1950 and these works possibly entered his repertoire as a result of his first tour of Czechoslovakia in 1948.
Gilels played some of the keyboard works of Rameau throughout his career. At his first examination concert in 1924 at eight years of age he played Tambourin and at the All-Union Competition for Performing Musicians in 1933 he played a group of pieces. The 1951 recording of two of them heard here shows stylistic performing influences from Godowsky and the great pianists of Gilels’s youth, yet these are perfectly valid performances, both poetic and musically suited to the piano.
Gilels was a pianist in the mould of the Russian great players that stemmed from Anton Rubinstein. His playing, especially in his youth, was fiery, volatile and exciting, and even late in his career still retained the grandeur and sweep of a great master in the Russian tradition. Gilels died in Moscow in 1985.
Thanks to Judith Raynor
© 2008 Jonathan Summers
GREAT PIANISTS • EMIL GILELS
Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764): Suite for harpsichord in E minor
X: La villageoise
Recorded in 1951; 78 rpm; CCCP 19533
V: Le rappel des oiseaux
Recorded in 1951; 78 rpm; CCCP 19534
Leopold Godowsky (1870-1938): Renaissance, Book 2
XII. Gigue in E major (transcription of the Gigue from Harpsichord Suite No. 1 in G minor by Jean-Baptiste Loeillet, 1680-1730)
Recorded in 1935; 78 rpm; CCCP 524
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791): Piano Sonata No. 14 in C minor, K. 457
I. Molto allegro
III. Allegro assai
Recorded in 1950; Melodiya LP D 04046/7
Robert Schumann (1810-1856): Toccata in C, Op. 7
Recorded in 1935; 78 rpm; CCCP 526/527
Fantasiestücke, Op. 12
No. 7: Traumes Wirren
Recorded in 1937; 78 rpm; CCCP 5077
Spanisches Liederspiel, Op. 74
No. 10: Der Kontrabandiste (arr. C. Tausig)
Recorded in 1935; 78 rpm; CCCP 525
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847):
3 Fantaisies ou caprices, Op. 16
No. 2: Scherzo
Recorded in 1940; 78 rpm; CCCP 10662
Lieder ohne Worte (Songs without Words), Book 3, Op. 38
No. 18 in A flat major, Op. 38, No. 6, ‘Duetto
Recorded in 1947; 78 rpm; CCCP 14574
Bedrich Smetana (1824-1884): Czech Dances, Book 1
No. 2: Polka in A minor
Recorded in 1950; 78 rpm; CCCP 18784
No. 3: Polka in F major
Recorded in 1950; 78 rpm; CCCP 18785
Claude Debussy (1862-1918): Suite bergamasque
III: Clair de lune
Recorded in 1946; Melodiya LP D 04046
Claude Debussy (arr. Leonard Borwick, 1868-1925) Nocturnes
No. 2: Fêtes
Recorded in 1937; 78 rpm; CCCP 8241/42
Maurice Ravel (1875 - 1937): Le Tombeau de Couperin
Recorded in 1950; Melodiya LP D 04046
All tracks recorded in the USSR
Producer: Jonathan Summers, Audio Restoration Engineer: Ward Marston
Special thanks to Donald Manildi
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GILELS, Emil: Early Recordings, Vol. 1 (1935-1951)