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
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
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.
Masterwork Index: Beethoven
concerto 5 ~~ Brahms