Who was Emil Gilels?

Emil Grigoryevich Gilels was one of the greatest musicians of his time, one of the best pianists of all time, a pianist with staggering technique and ‘golden’ sound who redefined our understanding of what the piano could do. Even the formidable Sviatoslav Richter admitted that he thought twice before performing pieces associated with his fellow Soviet pianist, steering clear of Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto and Prokofiev’s Eighth Piano Sonata.


The public life of Gilels is well documented and his career intertwined with many of the iconic musical moments of the 20th century. When he made his solo debut in America against the backdrop of Cold War tensions in 1955, he was the first Soviet artist to visit the US since the Second World War.

He was met with uneasy silence when he walked towards the piano, but arose to thunderous ovation. That same year he was the soloist in Tchaikovsky’s first Piano Concerto with Leonard Bernstein at the UN headquarters to mark the 10th anniversary of the institution.

Later, as the chairman of the jury of the First International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958, it was Gilels’s task to inform the Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev that contrary to the contest’s intended political agenda, there was no question that the first prize was destined for an American, Van Cliburn. But what made this pianist tick off-stage? And how did his life and experiences shape his performing personality? With this year marking the century of his birth, it’s an ideal time to explore this most private of individuals, as revealed by rare and previously unpublished interviews and documents held in the Emil Gilels Archive.

When and where was Gilels born?

Gilels’s musical journey started in Odessa, where he was born in 1916. It’s a town that produced a seemingly endless stream of famous musicians including David Oistrakh, Nathan Milstein, Benno Moiseiwitsch, Samuil Feinberg, Yakov Zak and Maria Grinberg.

Music lessons were taken very seriously. Any student showing talent would face long hours of daily and intensely disciplined study.

Who did Gilels study with?

Gilels was no exception, and despite neither of his parents being musicians, from the age of six he began lessons with one of Odessa’s most famous teachers, Yakov Tkatch.

Gilels admitted he was a lazy student, finding any opportunity to use his natural aptitude for the keyboard to avoid practising, to the dismay of his teacher who had rightly predicted Gilels’s future stardom. Despite the frequent fights between teacher and student, Gilels noted, ‘My technique grew, how can I put it, like a flower that pushes its way through the paving-stones.’ Remembering this time, Gilels’s friend Yakov Zak said, ‘Through the music-school corridors one was sure to hear pianos being beaten with five hours of etudes not so much in unison, but competitively. But to hear Gilels play these was simply scary!’

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At the age of 13, Gilels left Tkach to study with Berta Reingbald – it was a turning point. Tactfully channelling Gilels’s single-mindedness, Reingbald became for Gilels what he described as a ‘musical mother’ and ‘a cool breeze of fresh air’ who was able to coax out the lyrical qualities behind his athletic virtuosity.

While he later enrolled for postgraduate studies at the Moscow Conservatory in the class of the legendary Heinrich Neuhaus, it was under Reingbald’s guidance that Gilels learnt the core repertoire and developed the hallmarks that defined his mature performing style.

Intent on giving her student the broadest outlooks possible, she introduced him to what were, at the time, musical rarities in Russia, including Busoni’s transcriptions and the music of Debussy and Ravel. Equally, she was keen to introduce her student’s playing to other musicians visiting Odessa on tour. It was through one of these meetings that Gilels had the opportunity to perform for Arthur Rubinstein. Giddy with excitement at hearing the mastery of this young student, Rubinstein exclaimed that what he had heard was so phenomenal that if Gilels ever went to America, he would have no option left but to ‘pack his bags’ and leave.

When was his big break?

Gilels would eventually go to America, but his first big break came in 1933 in the First All-Union Competition in Moscow, and internationally through the 1938 Ysaÿe (now Queen Elisabeth) International Competition in Brussels.

It is difficult today to imagine the anticipation with which the public followed such events. At the time the Soviet people – regardless of whether or not they considered themselves musical – greeted competition laureates like national heroes.

Gilels was suddenly faced with a flurry of invitations to perform at high-profile venues, and he was mesmerised by the new impressions of life beyond his small home town. At times his thirst to discover these new worlds was something of a distraction. A few days before Gilels’s 1933 eagerly anticipated recital at the Grand Hall of the Leningrad Philharmonia, a friend arranged a morning practice session. To keep the teenager from being sidetracked, the door was silently locked. When the friend returned later to check on his progress, he was greeted by complete silence. The room was empty, the piano still closed. Gilels had jumped out of the window into the bustling Nevsky Prospect to take in Leningrad’s sights.

Gilels kept his youthful curiosity as an adult, often visiting museums and art galleries while on tour. He would happily lose himself for hours in European churches and cathedrals, hoping to stumble upon a practising organist. He was fascinated by the organ, which was so rarely heard in the Soviet Union and conspicuously absent from Russian Orthodox worship.

‘[I felt] like a drained battery that was being recharged,’ he said. The organ reminded Gilels of his adolescent love for Liszt’s and Busoni’s transcriptions of Bach’s organ works – in fact, his dream to become an organist had at one point almost disrupted his piano studies. Few people associate Gilels with Bach, a composer whose significance he felt was too private to share with a large audience. Yet for a close circle of friends he played Bach’s complete Well Tempered Clavier and many of the Suites.

Gilels and Stalin

There was no question that the concert stage was Gilels’s home territory, but the hours before a performance always saw him in an austere, often unapproachable state. He called the walk onto stage the ‘journey to Golgotha’, and the burden of responsibility on his shoulders was huge. Already in 1933 he had come to the attention of Stalin who had referred to Gilels as the Soviet Union’s ‘ginger gold’ and was keen to showcase him as a symbol of the nation’s might.

In a time when travel beyond the borders of the USSR was subject to severe limitations, Gilels was among the first group of musicians sent to play outside the Soviet Union after the War – first in Czechoslovakia and Hungary, and then wider Europe. Whether performing at the historic Potsdam Conference or for Stalin’s official and private gatherings, having a ‘bad day’ was not an option.

Being Stalin’s favourite pianist brought privileges, but also fear of incurring the dictator’s wrath. Still, Gilels’s courage was phenomenal. It’s only recently come to light that after performing for Stalin during the war, the dictator asked Gilels whether he wanted anything. He asked for his professor, Heinrich Neuhaus, to be freed from prison. An irate Stalin told Gilels never to ask such things again, but after a further performance for Stalin, Gilels dared to repeat his request. His efforts saw Neuhaus freed.

Gilels in the recording studio

While making a connection with the audience seemed to come so naturally to Gilels in concert, the recording studio was a different question altogether. Very few people knew how hostile the artificial studio environment was to him – the wealth of acclaimed recordings suggests otherwise, after all.

EMI’s record producer Suvi Grubb recalls a recording session of Schubert’s Moments Musicaux. Gilels was increasingly agitated. Unhappy after several takes he got up from the piano and, disappearing out of sight, paced angrily up and down the studio: ‘I went into the studio, not quite sure how he would receive me; he wheeled round, stomped up to me and, pointing a stubby finger at me, said “You, my friend” and the next moment, to my surprise, I found myself enveloped in a bear hug.’ Having now established a listener beyond the microphone, Gilels returned to work: ‘With that smile which so changed his countenance he said, “Now I show you” [and it became] one of the best records he has ever made.’

Gilels returned many times to record for EMI in London’s Abbey Road studios. Some sound tests, probably made when the pianist was unaware that other ears were listening, captured his delight at the piano, relating his impressions of the instrument in Russian while jumping through different excerpts of his vast repertoire.

Unlike many of the world’s most famous pianists, Gilels was not overly picky when it came to pianos. Of course, he had his own preferences, and as a Steinway Artist was able to chose from their exclusive concert fleet, but technicians like Franz Mohr consistently remarked on how easy Gilels was to work with. The one exception was Gilels’s obsession with pitch. As a child, he would treat the day his piano was tuned as some sort of celebration. And later, he would always ask the piano to be tuned sharper, a request often made a panic-inducing 15 minutes before a rehearsal or, even worse, a recording session.

Just minutes before he was due to record the three Tchaikovsky Piano Concertos in 1972 for EMI, with Lorin Maazel and the New Philharmonia Orchestra, Gilels was happily chatting and drinking coffee. His relaxed state contrasted to the frantic activity of a horrified piano technician trying to do something about Gilels’s ‘bombshell’ that the piano’s pitch needed to be raised from A440 Hz to 444 Hz.

Half way through the session, however, during the lyrical slow movement of the famous First Concerto, Gilels grew increasingly agitated after hearing the first playback. He refused to listen to more than a minute of each of the three complete takes, and announced that he was unhappy with the sound of the piano. Unable to produce the translucent sound he was looking for from the instrument, he smiled as he realised that the second, older piano in the studio would be perfect for the movement. The production staff were beside themselves; the older instrument would not be able to withstand having its pitch raised. They reminded him that that instrument was only at 440 Hz, but Gilels was unmoved. ‘In Russia’, he said with a quiet smile, ‘we have machines that can alter the pitch of a recording. Does the West not have such machines?’ The crisis was over.

When did Emil Gilels die?

Emil Gilels died on 14 October 1985, four years after suffering a hert attack from which his health never recovered. He was just a few days off his 69th birthday

Emil Gilels legacy

Today, memories of working with Gilels, and of his recitals, still form an important place in many people’s lives. His friends speak of how his introverted, sometimes stern appearance would, in close company, give way to a warm humour, sharp wit and love of mimicry. For a whole new generation Gilels still lives through his recordings in which his generosity of artistic spirit is matched by an unrelenting devotion to perfection as he humbly sought to become a messenger for the composer’s voice. Despite living in a strained time, Gilels was a man who had no hidden agendas or desire to play politics, and valued human integrity above all else. Completely devoted to the service of music, Gilels always said, ‘If I had my life again, I would do everything the same – only better!’

Emil Gilels best recordings

Beethoven Piano Concertos Nos 4 & 5

Emil Gilels (piano); Philharmonia Orchestra/Leopold Ludwig

Warner Classics 993 7212

Gilels is at his lyrical and poetic best in the Fourth Concerto, and revels in the majestic Emperor Concerto.

Grieg Lyric Pieces

Emil Gilels (piano)

DG 449 7212

A classic recording of the Norwegian composer’s exquisite piano miniatures, in which Gilels said he found ‘a whole world of intimate feeling’.

Brahms Piano Concertos Nos 1 & 2; Fantasien, Op. 116

Emil Gilels (piano); Berlin Phil/ Eugen Jochum

DG 439 4662

Rich, warm, lyrical and grand Brahms, with the beautiful Op. 116 Fantasies a welcome addition to the two piano concertos.

Mozart Piano Concerto No. 27; Concerto for two pianos in E flat, K365; Schubert Fantasia

Emil Gilels, Elena Gilels (piano); Vienna Phil/Karl Böhm

DG 463 6522

Gilels’s daughter Elena joins him for Mozart’s uplifting double piano concerto and Schubert’s masterful Fantasia, with superb results.

Beethoven, Fauré, Haydn and Schumann Piano Trios

Leonid Kogan (violin), Rudolf Barshai (viola), Mstislav Rostropovich (cello), Emil Gilels (piano)

DG 477 7476

Surely one of the greatest piano trios of all time, Gilels, Kogan and Rostropovich played together for ten years
in the 1950s. This two- disc set gives a taste of their brilliance.

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Main image: Gilels © Erich Auerbach/Getty Images)