P1385. EMIL GILELS: Scriabin & Prokofiev Recital; 'Hammerklavier' Sonata #29 in D-flat, Op.106 (Beethoven). (Canada) 2-St Laurent Studio YSL T-1155, Live Performance, 5 Feb., 1984, Royal Festival Hall, London. Transfers by Yves St Laurent.
“In its sheer scale, density of thought and technical requirements, the ‘Hammerklavier’ presents a more severe test of a pianist's capabilities than any other of Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas. The trio of sonatas that followed it - Op 109, 110 and 111 - may be more elusive and require a very special musical eloquence to illuminate all their facets, but Op 106, composed in 1817 and 1818, tests every aspect of a pianist's art, almost to the point of destruction.
If the last three sonatas are about reflection and the different kinds of poetic resolution a composer can achieve, this work deals unashamedly in confrontation, generating tensions that can't be resolved in any other way than in the gigantic explosion of the final fugue, whose deliberately clashing sonorities and raw-edged piano sound create a music that it is impossible to prettify. Yet the great slow movement, with its arching melodic lines and bewitching harmonic shifts, demands a different kind of authority altogether; and it's the fusion of these two worlds in the sonata that is unique even in late Beethoven.”
- Andrew Clements, THE GUARDIAN, 21 Jan., 2000
“[Gilels’ ‘Hammerklavier’ is…an absorbing and ambiguous reading. At times it is a model of lucidity, arguments and textures appearing as the mechanism of a fine Swiss watch must do to a craftsman's glass; yet the reading is also full of subversive beauty, the finely elucidated tonal shifts confirming Charles Rosen's assertion that 'Beethoven's art, for all its turbulence, is here as sensuous as a Schubert song'….Gilels proceeds to achieve a troubled coherence in the brilliantly executed coda of the finale where his extraordinary technique allows the music's evident ferocity to be tempered by Orphic assurance.”
- Richard Osborne, GRAMOPHONE, [repeated] 8 June, 2016
“What one finds in [Gilels'] ‘Hammerklavier’ is intense integrity and imperious control. There is grandeur and power but also clarity of texture and refinement of detail. His speeds in the outer movements are relatively spacious but the rhythmic grip he exerts is constant and unremitting. I’d be tempted to call this playing Olympian but for the inappropriateness of the word when confronted by Gilels’ huge and animating humanity…. [providing], however imperfectly in places, some semblance of Gilels’ greatness as a Beethovenian.”
- Jonathan Woolf, MusicWebInternational
"This sonata by Beethoven is from the years 1817-1818. The composer was therefore in his late forties and likely stone deaf. It was six years since his eighth symphony and around this time was working on parts of what would become the ninth symphony. He was very comfortable in large forms and was breaking new ground in compositional material and poetic / dramatic expression. Opus 106, the ‘Hammerklavier’, is a towering monument in the realm of pianism and of composition.
It is of a huge size and length. It is massive in its use of textures, musical materials, and range of expression. Depending on the tempi chosen, it takes about forty minutes to play, give or take, and that is probably why you do not know it as well as you should. In recitals, the work will take half of the program and pianists may wonder if their audience is up to such musical intensity.
However, you will want to expand your powers of concentration and listen to this work many times. The opening movement is powerful, beautiful, and full of brilliance. The very short second movement is a delightful insight into the lighter possibilities of some of the materials in the first movement. The third is the longest slow movement in Beethoven (around nineteen or twenty minutes). It is gorgeous, full of beautiful sonorities, and will cause your heart to ache profoundly. The fourth movement is a large fugue that is full of drama, poetic insertions, and some wonderfully harsh and angular moments.
Gilels was a pianist of great strength who also had wonderful delicacy and a poet's soul. This recording won an award from GRAMOPHONE and deserved it. You will want to listen to this many times and each time will gain new insights and you will be rewarded for delving ever more deeply into this great work performed by this wonderful artist.
I also want to say something about the tempo of the first movement. There are some who seem to take seriously Beethoven's metronome marking of half-note equaling 138. As a pianist, and as a lover of music, I not only believe that playing it at that tempo is impossible, but it would destroy the poetry of the work and the balance between the movements. Even if it were possible, it would be the only allegro in Beethoven of that speed and would be unlike any of his other sonatas. Why would this Allegro be so unique? You can have your gymnast's freak show if you want, but I will take poetry every time. If anyone has any evidence that they would like to use to persuade me that the ultra-fast tempo indicated is doable and can make poetic sense, please email me. I have heard claims of correct tempi, but when I hear them they never approach the notated tempo. Never.”
- Craig Matteson, 3 June, 2005
"Emil Gilels, one of the world's great pianists and, in 1955, the first Soviet musician to perform in the United States since Sergei Prokofiev in 1921, was a stocky man with a shock of sandy hair and short, stubby fingers, uncharacteristic for a pianist. But his greatness was widely recognized. Howard Taubman of THE NEW YORK TIMES proclaimed him a 'great pianist' on the occasion of his New York debut at Carnegie Hall on Oct. 4, 1955. After his first New York recital a week later, Harold C. Schonberg invoked the phrase 'little giant', the term the critic W. J. Henderson had used for the pianist and composer Eugen d'Albert at the turn of the century.
Mr. Gilels continued to receive such encomiums throughout his career, both in the Soviet Union, where he had taught at the Moscow Conservatory since 1938, and in the West. Altogether he made 14 American tours, the last in 1983. On the occasion of his last New York recital, on April 16, 1983, Donal Henahan wrote in THE TIMES of his 'formidable, high-finish technique and beautiful control of nuance'.
Mr. Gilels led the procession of Soviet artists of his generation to the West; others who emerged shortly after his debut were David Oistrakh, the violinist; Sviatoslav Richter, the pianist, and Mstislav Rostropovich, the cellist. Mr. Rostropovich later became an outspoken dissident, but the others remained honored Russian citizens. Together, this group suggested that the traditions of Romantic music-making had not died out in the relatively isolated Russian musical world. 'The precepts of Leopold Auer still prevailed in violin pedagogy, and the pianists stemmed straight from Anton Rubinstein and the Leschetizky school', Mr. Schonberg wrote in 1979, on the occasion of one of Mr. Gilels' periodic returns to the American concert scene.
But especially in his later years, Mr. Gilels was a more Classically inclined pianist than, say, Mr. Richter. In 1970 he even offered an all-Mozart recital at Philharmonic (now Avery Fisher) Hall, which Allen Hughes of THE TIMES called 'superbly wrought'.
Basically, however, Mr. Gilels was a big, rich-toned pianist who could ride triumphantly over an orchestra in the mainstream Romantic piano concertos - those of Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Brahms and Tchaikovsky, all of which he recorded. He wasn't always note-perfect, but he commanded his repertory with an elán that made such flaws seem insignificant. And unlike some powerhouse virtuosos, he had a poetic gift that enlivened slow movements."
- John Rockwell, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 16 Oct., 1985