An undisputed master of the keyboard, Soviet pianist Emil Gilels is widely considered one of the greatest pianists of the twentieth century. Throughout his development from child prodigy to full-fledged virtuoso, Gilels astonished audiences with his flawless technique and unique tone, performing and recording music from a wide-ranging repertoire, stretching from Baroque and Romantic to twentieth century composers.
Born on 19 October 1916 in Odessa, Gilels had perfect pitch and showed exceptional talent from a very early age. He began lessons at the age of 5 with Yakov Tkach as his piano teacher, whom Gilels later credited with laying the foundations for his technique. In 1929 Gilels gave his first public concert, and in the same year he entered the Odessa Conservatory in the class of Bertha Reingbald, who further nurtured Gilel’s musical attributes. Gilels would later refer to her as his ‘musical mother’.
Under the guidance of Reingbald, Gilels took part in the First All-Union Competition of Performers in Moscow in 1933, winning the first prize by unanimous decision. This victory would mark a turning point in the career of the young pianist, spreading Gilels’s fame throughout the USSR and leading to a nationwide concert tour that, however, he had to cut short in order to continue with his studies. Gilels graduated from the Odessa Conservatory in 1935 and was subsequently accepted as a postgraduate student at the Moscow Conservatory, where he studied with the great pedagogue Heinrich Neuhaus, the master of Moscow’s school of pianism (Sviatoslav Richter, who knew Gilels well, was a fellow-student in the class of Neuhaus).
In 1936 Gilels took the second place award at the International Vienna Music Academy Competition, and two years later was awarded first prize at the Queen Elisabeth International Music Competition in Brussels. During World War II, Gilels performed in open-air recitals on the frontline in order to boost the morale of Soviet soldiers.
Following the war, Gilels toured Eastern Europe as a soloist and also gave concerts with his sister Elizaveta, an accomplished violinist. Gilels was one of the first Soviet artists allowed by the Soviet regime to travel and give concerts in the West. In October 1955 he gave his American debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Eugene Ormandy.
Gilels left behind him a rich recording legacy, featuring music from composers such as Liszt, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Scriabin, and Prokofiev. He also made acclaimed recordings of chamber music with violinist Leonid Kogan and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. He died in Moscow on 14 October 1985, while still in the process of recording the full cycle of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas, thus leaving the project unrealized.
His life’s work, however, remains a lasting legacy and a testament for his unmatched command of the keyboard, superb musicality, and singular sound (which pianist Evgeny Kissin has described as the “golden sound”). As Klaus Bennert puts it in the liner notes for Gilel’s last recording of the Beethoven sonatas, he was a“master pianist who began his career as a dynamic, titanic figure and who ended it by mediating with Olympian ease between intellect and emotion.”