Monday, September 18, 2017

Another Impressive Recording of Soviet Chamber Music

At the beginning of last month, DOREMI released another of its Legendary Treasures albums. That series was introduced to readers of this site through an article about a five-CD box set of trio performances by pianist Emil Gilels, violinist Leonid Kogan, and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. Last month’s release consists of only a single CD, but it happens to be the only recording of a duo recital given by Kogan and Gilels:

courtesy of Naxos of America

That recital took place in Leningrad (before the name “Saint Petersburg” was restored after the fall of the Soviet Union) on March 29, 1964; and the program consisted of three of Ludwig van Beethoven’s sonatas (which he called sonatas for pianoforte and violin). The selections are the third of the Opus 12 set, in the key of E-flat major, Opus 24 (“Spring”) in F major, and Opus 47 (“Kreutzer”) in A major.

All three of these sonatas are likely to be familiar to anyone interested in the violin repertoire. The value of this album comes not from its selections but from the fact that it is a “performance document” in which the performers are as interesting as what they are playing. To put this event in historical perspective, I was in the second semester of my freshman year when this concert took place. I remember that, by that time, I was familiar with Gilels’ name as a result of having listened to him take a particularly bold approach to Johannes Brahms’ Opus 83 (second) piano concerto in B-flat major. On the other hand I knew Kogan’s name only as a result of leafing through issues of the Schwann Catalog.

Where this recital is concerned, Gilels could not have been more different from my initial experience of him as a concerto soloist. While these three sonatas impose a wide variety of different virtuoso demands on both performers, neither Kogan nor Gilels ever tries to dominate the spotlight. It is worth observing that this may not have been the case for Beethoven himself, when he took the piano part for any of these sonatas! Nevertheless, Gilels brought a lightness of touch that consistently reflected a desire to approach each sonata as an intimate conversation; and Kogan replied as the ideal conversant.

As a result, however familiar these sonatas may be to the music-loving listener, these are the sorts of recordings that convey the impression that one is encountering the music for the first time. One might almost say that they may not be the best choice for a “first contact” experiences. Only after a certain familiarity with the recorded results of more recent duos (often in projects to record all ten of Beethoven’s violin sonatas) can one become sensitized to the subtleties that differentiate spontaneity from well-engineered studio experiences. Listeners who ascend to such a level of awareness will then appreciate that history is far from the “bunk” that Henry Ford made it out to be!

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