Fughette in G minor.
(Moscow, 27 december 1977)
Emil Grigoryevich Gilels (Ukrainian: Емі́ль Григо́рович Гі́лельс, Russian: Эми́ль Григо́рьевич Ги́лельс, Emi'li Grego'rievič Gi'lelis; October 19, 1916 October 14, 1985) was a Soviet pianist, widely considered to be one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century. His last name is sometimes transliterated Hilels.
Gilels was born in Odessa (now part of Ukraine). He began studying the piano at the age of five under Yakov Tkach, who was a student of the French pianists Raoul Pugno and Alexander Villoing Thus, through Tkach, Gilels had a pedagogical genealogy stretching back to Chopin, via Pugno, and to Muzio Clementi, via Villoing. Tkach was a stern disciplinarian who emphasized scales and studies. Gilels later credited this strict training for establishing the foundation of his technique.
Gilels made his public debut at the age of 12 in June 1929 with a well-received program of Beethoven, Scarlatti, Chopin, and Schumann. In 1930, Gilels entered the Odessa Conservatory where he was coached by Berta Reingbald, whom Gilels credited as a formative influence.
After graduating from the Odessa Conservatory (Ukraine) in 1935 , he moved to Moscow where he studied under the famous piano teacher Heinrich Neuhaus until 1937.
A year later he was awarded first prize at the 1938 Ysaÿe International Festival in Brussels by a distinguished jury whose members included Arthur Rubinstein, Samuil Feinberg, Emil von Sauer, Ignaz Friedman, Walter Gieseking, Robert Casadesus, and Arthur Bliss. His winning performances were of both volumes of the Brahms-Paganini variations, and the Liszt-Busoni Fantasie on Two Motives from Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro". The other competitors included Moura Lympany in second place, and Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli in seventh place.
Following his triumph at Brussels, a scheduled American debut at the 1939 New York World's Fair was aborted due to the outbreak of the Second World War.
During the War, Gilels entertained Soviet troops with morale-boosting open-air recitals on the frontline, of which film archive footage exists.
In 1945, he formed a chamber music trio with his brother-in-law, the violinist Leonid Kogan and the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich.
After the war, he toured the Soviet Bloc countries of Eastern Europe as a soloist. He also gave two-piano recitals with Yakov Flier, as well as concerts with his violinist sister, Elizaveta.
Gilels was one of the first Soviet artists, along with David Oistrakh, allowed to travel and concertize in the West. His delayed American debut in 1955 playing Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 in Philadelphia with Eugene Ormandy was a great success. His British debut in 1959 met with similar acclaim.
In 1952, he became a professor at the Moscow Conservatory, where his students included Valery Afanassiev and Felix Gottlieb. He presided over the International Tchaikovsky Competition for many years, and as chair of the jury awarded first prize to Van Cliburn at the sensational inaugural event in 1958.
He made his Salzburg Festival debut in 1969 with a piano recital of Weber, Prokofiev and Beethoven at the Mozarteum, followed by a performance of Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto with George Szell and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.
In 1981, he suffered a heart attack after a recital at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, and suffered declining health thereafter. He died unexpectedly during a medical checkup in Moscow, only a few days before his 69th birthday. Sviatoslav Richter, who knew Gilels well and was a fellow-student of Neuhaus at the Moscow Conservatory, believed that he was killed accidentally when an incompetent doctor at the Kremlin hospital gave him the wrong injection during a routine checkup.
Gilels is universally admired for his superb technical control and burnished tone.
He had an extensive repertoire, from Baroque to Late Romantic and 20th Century Classical composers. His interpretations of the central German-Austrian classics formed the core of his repertoire, in particular Beethoven, Brahms, and Schumann; but he was equally illuminative with Scarlatti, Bach, as well as with twentieth-century music like Debussy, Bartók, and Prokofiev. His Liszt was also first-class, and his recordings of the Hungarian Rhapsody nº 6 and the Sonata in B minor have acquired classic status in some circles.
Gilels premiered Sergei Prokofiev's Piano Sonata No. 8, dedicated to Mira Mendelssohn, on December 30, 1944, in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory.
He was in the midst of completing a recording cycle of Beethoven's piano sonatas for the German record company Deutsche Grammophon when he died. His recording of the "Hammerklavier" sonata received a Gramophone Award in 1984.