Emil Gilels had so much to offer as a pianist. His live recordings of Op. 101, among other things, prove it. There are more wrong notes, but also more feeling and excitement. Here in both sonatas he is simply too cautious. It sounds like he's reading every note, but never feeling any of it. His tone is golden, but it adds up to nothing. Some of these movements, such as the finale to Op. 101 and the first movement and finale of Op. 106, are some of the most thrilling music Beethoven ever wrote. But all I get a sense of here is caution. Some have described his Hammerklavier as "majestic," hence the slower tempi, but I don't hear much majesty here.
To give just a couple examples: The fourth movement of Op. 101, when he completes the first phrase at about ten seconds in, he's so affected with it to my ears--goes against the grain of the "direct joy" of the music. Later in the same movement is one of Beethoven's most thrilling moments to my ears: on this disc it occurs at 4:48, when Ludwig seems to stop everything and an about-face to the recapitulation. It's uneventful here. If it's at its most exciting it can always shock and surprise me--I'm so going with the momentum that's been building that I don't expect the reversal. And what is one to make of the slow and plodding build of the fugal development section of the Hammerklavier's first movement, starting at six minutes in, right up to the recap? To my ears it's perverse and lacks the inevitable ecstacies of Richter's live performance, or the titanic struggles of Arrau or Solomon, especially starting at about seven minutes in. There it sounds very much like he is trying not to hit any wrong notes rather than living the music
Great sound from DG, but I'll take Gilels live performance on Music & Arts--wrong notes and all--and Arrau, Solomon and Richter in London for the Hammerklavier.