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ClassicsOnline Home » GILELS, Emil: Early Recordings, Vol. 2 (1937-1954)
These recordings were made in the USSR and come from the first stage of Emil Gilels’s career. Although he was strongly identified with Russian repertoire, this disc presents several rarities. As performances of Medtner’s music were forbidden in the USSR until after Stalin’s death, Gilels, who was an ardent champion of the composer’s music, was unable to record the G minor Piano Sonata until 1954. No less valuable are the recordings of Glazunov’s and Prokofiev’s Second Piano Sonatas which, like Rachmaninov’s music, were rarely included in Gilels’s concert programmes.
Great Pianists: Emil Gilels (1916–1985)
Early Recordings 2 • 1937–1954
One of the greatest Russian pianists of the twentieth century, Emil Gilels was born in Odessa in 1916. Although his parents were not musicians by profession, his father was an amateur musician with an excellent singing voice. All the children played instruments and were often taken to concerts and the opera by their father. 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 Hungary in 1946. He then performed in Czechoslovakia and Poland in 1948, 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 was, of course, strongly identified with the Russian repertoire. Around the age of seventeen he gave his first performance of the Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor, Op. 23, by Tchaikovsky, a work that was associated with him throughout his life. Gilels’s first recordings were probably made in 1934 rather than 1935 as previously thought, and a few years later at his third recording session for Melodiya, he recorded a Russian work for the first time—the Prelude in G minor, Op. 23 No. 5, by Rachmaninov. Gilels did not play a great deal of Rachmaninov’s works but he had played this one at a concert at the Moscow Conservatory in March 1937 and continued to play it throughout his career incorporating it into a group of four Preludes which he played frequently throughout the 1970s. At his next recording session, in 1940, Gilels recorded a handful of encore pieces by Brahms, Liszt, Mendelssohn, Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky. The Rachmaninov work on this occasion was the Etude-Tableau in C minor, Op. 39 No. 1, and was new to his repertoire; he played it in Kharkov in November of that year, but rarely performed it again. At the same recording session Gilels recorded the early work of Tchaikovsky that opens this disc while five years later he recorded Rachmaninov’s own transcription of his song Daisies.
On the 3rd March 1950 Gilels gave a recital of Russian music at the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory in which he played Glazunov’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in E minor, Op. 75, Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in D minor, Op. 14, the Six Piano Pieces, Op. 19, by Tchaikovsky and Balakirev’s Islamey to finish the published programme. As one of his three encores he played the March from The Love of Three Oranges by Prokofiev, a work he had recorded three years before and which became a favourite encore. The same composer’s Piano Sonata No. 2 was recorded in May 1951 and he played it at the Florence and Bologna Festivals a month later as well as in Rome. Although Gilels played Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 8, Op. 84, (of which he gave the first performance in September 1944) and No. 3, Op. 28, very frequently throughout the 1960s and 1970s it appears that he rarely played the Second Sonata in public but it was on his programmes of the 1954 season. Gilels never again played the E minor Sonata by Glazunov or any of his other works.
The first time Gilels performed a work by Medtner in public was at a concert at the Moscow Conservatory in January 1954. Performances of music by the émigré Medtner were forbidden in the USSR until after Stalin’s death in 1953. However, at this time Gilels championed Medtner’s music and a month before the concert even published an article in Sovetskaya Muzyka (December 1953), in which he pleaded for the composer’s music to be studied and performed in the USSR again. The Piano Sonata No. 3 in G minor, Op. 22, had already been championed by another great Russian pianist of a previous generation, Benno Moiseiwitsch. Indeed, Moiseiwitsch, who was a personal friend of Medtner, recorded this work for HMV in London in 1943 (Naxos 8.110675). Gilels performed this Sonata again in Kiev during the same month but that appears to be the last performance he gave of it, although he did play the Sonata in A minor, Op. 30, and the Sonata Reminiscenza, Op. 38 No. 1, during the late 1960s.
Thanks to Judith Raynor for providing important biographical information
© 2010 Jonathan Summers
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GILELS, Emil: Early Recordings, Vol. 2 (1937-1954)