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CD Review

Johannes Brahms

Chamber Music

  • Quartet for Piano & Strings #1, Op. 25 *
  • Ballades, Op. 10
Emil Gilels, piano
* Members of the Amadeus Quartet
Deutsche Grammophon 447407-2
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I found this in one of those infamous bargain sections, where classical music especially goes to die, but should you stumble upon this fine disc, I can assure you of its quality whether new or used. Emil Gilels was one of the more famous Soviet-era pianists, and had the talent to back up the press. Put simply, any collaboration between East and West was a big deal then, and we can be thankful that this partnership is equally significant on musical grounds.

Some of you may know the Quartet for Piano and Strings #1 from Arnold Schoenberg's much maligned orchestral arrangement, already reviewed at least twice in these very pages at Classical Net. Truthfully, there's nothing especially wrong with the piece in that form, and it sounds pretty good provided you just play the heck out of it and have fun. The original chamber version can be preferred for many reasons, not least of which is the increased transparency and intimacy that chamber music allows. This recording has been regarded as a classic since long before I was born, and happily it remains so. Gilels may have had a reputation for virtuoso fireworks, but listen to how carefully he works with his famed Amadeus colleagues! The first movement is full of intensity, but also delicacy and poise. The 1971 sound spotlights the piano, but not horribly, and nothing is lost as far as warmth or detail. In the inner movements, there is no loss of the underlying tension and drama in Brahms' music, but great attention to dynamics and beauty as well. A sweetly singing third movement Andante proves winning; Gilels trills are beyond gorgeous. And the finale lashes at you like a coiled snake. Taken as a whole, this is good as it gets. There are renditions in more modern sound, and even more famous names, Still, this is a top contender.

Recorded five years later, the Op. 10 set is more than mere filler. Gilels was always a remarkable artist when it came to Brahms, and these solo selections are further proof. His phrasing is wonderfully poignant, but there's no lack of the pianist's famed strength or boldness either. He allows Brahms' inner harmonics to be clear, and the same majesty that he brought to the composer's concertos (also on DG) is in evidence here. This brings the disc to over an hour of great music making. This disc is still very much in print, and more importantly, very much worth your time.

Copyright © 2013, Brian Wigman