Emil Grigoryevich Gilels
b. 1916 Odessa, Ukraine; d. 1985 Moscow, USSR

I am less acquainted with Emil Gilels's biography than some of the other pianists I have written about, however, I feel his artistry is great enough for me to say some words about him. Gilels was born October 19 into a musical family. Although widely known as a pupil of Heinrich Neuhaus (along with compatriot Sviatoslav Richter), Gilels credited Bertha Ringold as his primary musical influence during his formative years. When he was 16 years of age, the shy-yet-fiery redhead played Beethoven's Appassionata and Ravel's Jeux d'eau for the well-known virtuoso Arthur Rubinstein at the local conservatory and made a lasting impression.

After completing graduate studies at the Moscow Conservatory, Gilels participated in several prominent competitions, winning second place in Vienna (Yakov Flier took first) and first in the Ysaye at Brussels. Pianists Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (7th place--he received a zero from the Italian judge!) and Moura Lympany were among his competitors at Brussels. The Second World War delayed Gilels' American debut, but the cultural provisions of the 1955 Geneva agreement gave him the honor of being the first Soviet artist to visit the United States in over a quarter of a century.

I was lucky enough to listen to a reel-to-reel broadcast tape of Gilels' Chicago Symphony Orchestra debut (in Northwestern University's music archives), playing the Tchaikovsky 1st under Reiner. The performance is essentially similar to the RCA Living Stereo release made around that time (in fabulous sound, I might add). Gilels' playing is athletic, lyrical, and exciting--a different conception than his later, weightier Columbia recording with Mehta and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. His two commercial recordings of the Brahms 2nd follow a comparable pattern. The earlier recording (again with Reiner and the CSO) is quite volatile, while the latter version is more mellow in tone and leisurely paced. As Gilels aged, he lost some of that youthful energy and relied more on his experienced insight to communicate to his audience.

Although often considered the lesser pianist in comparison with Richter, I consider him his equal. While he did not boast such a massive repertoire or insane technique as his fellow countryman, I find a charm and clarity (evident in his Scarlatti) in his playing that is lacking in Richter. Nearly everything he touched turned to gold. His Brahms concertos and intermezzos are understated yet ardent. His Beethoven was elaborately detailed, the work of a master craftsman. Grieg's diminutive Lyric Pieces have never had a finer champion. And I have never ceased to be impressed by his dynamic Prokofiev (he premiered the lyrical Eighth Sonata, which was dedicated to him and also Richter's favorite). I only regret that he did not record more Scriabin and Schumann. Gilels passed away prematurely (due to Soviet medical incompetence according to Richter). He was only sixty-eight years of age, but I cannot complain. He left behind a priceless treasure of musical recordings for posterity to enjoy.

Recommended listening: All of it.