Music on CD: It's a cracker

Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No 1; The Nutcracker, excerpts

Emil Gilels (piano),

Chicago Symphony/

Fritz Reiner

(recorded 1955-59)

RCA `Living Stereo' 09026 68530 2

When the red-haired finger-sprinter from Odessa made his American debut in 1955, RCA whisked him into the studio to record Tchaikovsky's ubiquitous First Piano Concerto. Emil Gilels' partnership with Fritz Reiner yielded a delicious blend of bravura and refinement, barnstorming in octave passages (with no slacking, tempo-wise) and incomparably delicate in the second movement's filigree waltz-trio. True, there are other Gilels records of the same work, but none is superior to this. Listen through speakers and the impact is amazing, though headphone listening reveals an audible string of tape edits, especially in the first movement.

Reiner's Nutcracker sequence is, if anything, even finer, not least because the excerpts chosen range far beyond the familiar Suite to include such delightful confections as the Spanish Dance, Christmas Tree Scene, Pas de Deux, Final Waltz and Apotheosis. Tchaikovsky's cameo characterisations, his sense of fun and fantasy, emerge as vividly as ever, and Reiner's fastidious baton clarifies every exquisite detail. Tempos are generally swift, but such is Reiner's control - and his players' cultivated virtuosity - that nothing sounds rushed. If you need to sample, beam up to track 15, where the Prince and the Sugar-Plum Fairy lead you through a bewitching sequence of movements (starting with the Pas de Deux) to the end of the ballet. I doubt that you'll resist the purchase.

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