The Post-War Years, American Debut and Worldwide Fame (1946 – 1974)

In 1955 Gilels became the first Soviet Artist, since the Second World War, to travel on a concert tour of the USA. Gilels’ appearance in the US at the height of the ‘Cold War,’ being a highly decorated pianist with the Stalin’s Prize (1946) and the Peoples’ Artist of the Soviet Union (1954), was tense to say the least. The auditorium of Carnegie Hall watched Gilels’ appearance on stage in an uneasy silence: yet in stark contrast as the recital ended the audience erupted into rapturous applause and refused to let the pianist leave. In the USA, Gilels spectacularly performed Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with the celebrated conductor Eugene Ormandy (who had in his time performed extensively with Rachmaninov). Coincidentally, the very same concerto was chosen earlier by Sergei Rachmaninov and Vladimir Horowitz for their own American debuts. In the wake of the debut Ormandy, the critics and public were united in one thought: Gilels’ stature was unquestionable. The American tour secured Gilels’ lifelong reputation in North America. Right up to the end of his life, Gilels’ appearances in both the US and in Canada were eagerly awaited events that strived to make the most of his Soviet-Artist’s three month tour ‘allowance.’

The years between the 1950s and 1970s saw Gilels at the height of his powers in all aspects of his playing. In terms of Gilels’ journey, the Artistic vision always was and had been present (a ‘monolith’ to borrow Yakov Flier’s wording on Gilels), but these years saw a marked increase in the sheer scale of his output. Gilels gave over a hundred concerts a year (Lev Barenboim’s ‘Chronography’ lists between fifty to sixty concerts a year, but his list is far from exhaustive). Aside from the intensive foreign tours, Gilels also performed within the USSR – in Moscow, Leningrad, Novosibirsk, Saratov, Kuibyshev, Omsk, Kazan, Sverdlovsk, Chelyabinsk, Gorky, Sochi, Tbilisi, Yerevan, Baku, Lvov, Uzhgorod, Odessa, Donetsk, Dnepropetrovsk, Chernigov, Zaporozhe, Kiev, Kharkov, Novocherkassk, Voronezh, Rostov, Kislovodsk, Piatigorsk, Essentuki, Kishinev, Minsk, Grodno, Smolensk, Vilnius, Kaunas, Riga, Dzintari, Klaipeda, Tallinn, Tartu, Bryansk, Yaroslavl, Vladimir, Kaluga, Kalinin, Kursk, Orel, Barnaul, Novokuznetsk, Prokopyevsk, Tambov, Lipetsk, Ivanovo, Tula, Ryazan, Kolomna, Serpukhov, Pskov and many other towns. Gilels, on the most part, performed in these places several times a year.

He performed under the baton of many of the finest conductors: Mravinsky, Melik-Pashayev, Svetlanov, Ivanov, Rakhlin, Gauk, Ginsburg, Eliasberg, Niyazi, Jarvi, Kitayenko, Dudarova, Barshai. Gilels’ collaboration with Sanderling and Kondrashin were particularly important and longstanding. Within the USSR he had further collaborations with Gusman, Paverman, Maluntsyan, Gokieli, Kolomiytseva, Shaposhnikov, Gurtovoy, Rabinovich, Katz, Feldman, Vigners, Sherman, Stasevich, Sokolov, Tiulin, Kravchenko, Karapetyan, Dubrovsky, Tolba, Provatorov, Katayev, Aranovich, Chunikhin, Yadikh, Nikolayevsky and many others. Through his collaborations he also was able to find new, talented conductors such as Verbintsky and Ovchinikov.

Gilels treated every single concert as if it were taking place in Carnegie Hall or the Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatory. He performed new programmes that constantly enriched his repertoire, and always kept his brilliant talent ‘in best form.’ Gilels played in all the major European cities as well as those in the USA, Canada and Japan. His numerous tours notably to the UK, East and West Germany, France, Belgium, Italy, Spain, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Yugoslavia, Iran, and Turkey were guaranteed in their success. Despite many of his concerts being on every-other-day, he always brought something fresh onto the concert platform.

Gilels’ repertoire was, already in the 1960s, incredibly vast: amongst others, he had in it works by J. S. Bach, Handel, Rameau, Scarlatti, C. P. E. Bach, Clementi, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Weber, Schubert, Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Grieg, Franck, Saint-Saens, Smetana, Alyabiev, Balakirev, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Scriabin, Medtner, Glazunov, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Debussy, Ravel, Faure, Poulenc, Stravinsky, de Falla, Albeniz, Vainberg, Kabalevsky, Khachaturian, Craine, Vladigerov, and Bartok.

Gilels also played in ensembles: with pianists Flier and Zak, and later with his daughter Elena Gilels; violinists Elizaveta Gilels (his sister), Tziganov, Kogan; with the Beethoven Quartet; in a trio with Tziganov and Shirinsky, as well as his own trio (Gilels, Kogan, Rostropovich); with flautist Korneiv; and the French horn player Shapiro. Abroad Gilels collaborated with the Amadeus Quartet and the Sibelius Academy Quartet.

There has long been a tradition to call all cycles performed by Gilels ‘masterworks’ – though perhaps it might be more correct to call all Gilels’ interpretations such. He studied and knew vastly more of the piano literature than he ever brought out on stage: before the public he only ever disclosed a sacred part of this literature – that which he felt he could make and call ‘his own.’ Within his repertory several works took on a completely new dimension and meaning, such as the complete cycle of Beethoven piano concertos first performed in the season of 1955/1956. Gilels moulded Beethoven’s style and spirit in a new, completely convincing way that filtered this music through his own passionate understanding. The unfathomable mastery of execution was such that this achievement has rightly taken its place in the historical continuum of piano interpretation.

What makes these interpretations so unique is their simplicity: the lack of anything ‘contrived’ or simply for ‘effect’. Beethoven’s strength of character found its resonance in Gilels’, and many people could not help but comment on the physical resemblance. Such was Gilels’ affinity to this concerto-cycle that he recorded it no less than seven times throughout his career: with Kondrashin, Sanderling, Ludwig, Vandernoot, Szell, Sawallisch and Mazur. Aside from the recordings, Gilels made this cycle a central part of his concert repertoire and performed it extensively both in the USSR and abroad. Gilels’ repertory also numbered many other works by Beethoven – his interpretations of the sonatas and variations, the recording of which at the end of his life was left tragically incomplete, were of particular importance. Despite the unquestionable breadth of Beethoven’s style it is unlikely that the world will ever witness such a unique synthesis of understanding.

Gilels also found a particular affinity to Mozart, which he began to zealously champion in the 1960s and in the Salzburg Festivals. Gilels’ Mozart was a phenomenon in itself: simple and sincere. Initially it has to be said there was an element of surprise that a pianist of such stature felt the need to express himself through these works, but soon it became clear that Mozart’s sincerity and simplicity were so integral to those same qualities in Gilels’ own pianism.

The performance (and recording) of Chopin’s Piano Concerto in E minor Opus 11 had wide repercussions in the musical world: the Mozart-like transparency was one that found no comparison. Grieg’s Lyric Pieces according to the Norwegian critics had ‘never been played so well’ – likewise nor was the Piano Concerto Opus 16.

In Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 Opus 30 Gilels had only one rival – Rachmaninov himself. In Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 Opus 23 however, he was hailed by many authoritative musicians as its only worthy exponent. Gilels’ interpretation of this concerto has been well documented on record under the baton of Kondrashin, Cluytens, Mravinsky, Svetlanov, Gauk, Samosud, Ivanov, Ancerl, Reiner, Mehta and others. Gilels also recorded all three of Tchaikovsky’s piano concertos as a set with Maazel.

The presence of Debussy and Ravel in Gilels’ repertoire proved unexpected for some, but how could it have been otherwise for a pianist whose sense of sound was unequivocal in its manifestation? His interpretations of these Impressionist composers have long since joined the ranks of some of the most outstanding achievements of modern piano playing. In the case of the one-time warhorse, Saint-Saens’ Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor Opus 22, since Gilels’ recording it suddenly ceased being heard – such was the height of the benchmark that Gilels set.

Unexpectedly for those who considered Gilels only an exceptional technician, he presented a concert cycle ‘A History of the Piano Sonata.’ This was not a completely chronological representation as Gilels’ Romantic nature meant that he found it hard to keep within strict frameworks in repertoire (even if they were set by himself). Although he lost interest in this project, the interpretations of Scarlatti, Clementi, C.P.E. Bach and Haydn were important events in the musical world.

Liszt and Prokofiev on the other hand were completely ‘his’ composers. He raised these composers to unparalleled and unthinkable heights. Among Gilels’ most notable interpretations of Liszt were the Spanish Rhapsody and the Second, Sixth, Ninth and Fifteenth Hungarian Rhapsodies. His interpretation of the B minor Sonata and Piano Concerto No. 1 in E flat scaled the heights of mastery. Gilels’ interpretations of Prokofiev’s Second, Third and Eight Piano Sonatas were legendary. Even the most outstanding pianists tried to steer clear of playing ‘Gilels’ pieces’ – even Sviatoslav Richter acknowledged that he could not play Prokofiev’s Third Piano Sonata since Gilels’ epic interpretation.

Upon hearing Gilels’ interpretation of Stravinsky’s Petrushka, its dedicatee (none other than Artur Rubinstein) refused to play it. Brahms, like Beethoven, was unquestionably found in Gilels its ideal interpreter: the deep passion and stern restraint were as if especially made for Gilels. Already in 1958 Gilels’ interpretation of Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major Opus 83 with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was nominated as the best recording of the year in America. Later Gilels recorded both Brahms’ piano concertos with Eugen Jochum, and these recordings too were awarded the same status. In his later years Gilels often played Brahms’ Ballades Opus 10 and Fantasias Opus 116 as well as returning to the Variations on a Theme of Paganini. Throughout his whole life Gilels performed works by Schumann. Of particular note are his interpretations of the Toccata (which he often played in his youth), the Piano Sonatas No. 1 in F sharp minor Opus 11 and No. 2 in G minor Opus 22 and Carnaval. Towards the end of his life he returned to the Symphonic Etudes.

In all these, and many other, interpretations the first few notes are already enough to identify their creator as none other than Gilels. Amongst the many identifiable characteristics is the unique space occupied by the sound, and what the Hungarian musician L. Hernadi described as ‘a high voltage circuit’ from start to finish that gripped the audience through its emotional intensity.

Gilels’ commitment to the recording studio was as intensive as his commitment to his concert tours: it takes only to look at the list of record companies for which he played, including Melodiya, Angel, Ariola, EMI, Eterna and Deutsche Grammophon, to realize that it is in itself longer than the discography of most pianists. His earliest recordings are from the 1930s and include Loeillet-Godowsky’s Gigue, the Fantasia on Two Themes from ‘The Marriage of Figaro’ by Mozart-Liszt-Busoni, Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G minor Opus 23, Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 9, Schumann’s Toccata and Mendelssohn’s Duetto from the Songs without Words. All in all Gilels committed to record over five hundred works (not counting the multiple versions that exist for many of the cycles and individual pieces): the exact number however may never become known because of the numerous amateur audio and video recordings made from Gilels’ recitals.

Between the 1950s and 1970s Gilels continued to teach at the Moscow Conservatory whilst maintaining an active profile as an important public figure; something that was at odds to his temperament. Gilels could not however refuse the invitation to preside over the jury at the International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition – a position that he maintained for the first four competitions. In many respects it was thanks to Gilels’ moral standing that the first ever winner of this competition was the American pianist Van Cliburn (despite the fact that Cliburn was unquestionably the best competitor, Gilels was obliged to argue this case before the leaders of the USSR). Neither could Gilels refuse to sit in the jury of the Piano Competition in Brussels (among several others) where his authority was undisputable. Likewise, it was not possible for Gilels not to play at the Potsdam Conference in 1945 and at other government events. Gilels’ magnanimous nature meant that he could not ignore the difficulties of his fellow colleagues and always tried to help: he asked for the return of Neuhaus to Moscow from his exile in Sverdlovsk, he asked for Sviatoslav Richter to be allowed to give concert tours abroad, for Maria Grinberg to be allocated a flat, and much more. Sometimes, however, he declined requests addressed to him such as to sign a letter against the scientist Andrei Sakharov.

Much of what Gilels did, especially in the respect of others, required enormous courage yet everything was done quietly and without public disclosure. Gilels was an incredibly modest person and would not stand for any ostentatious displays around his actions. As a result it was easy for some people to view Gilels’ actions in a misinformed way, and subsequently accuse him of sympathizing with the Soviet regime and of being an overly cautious person with an unpleasant disposition.

Many of those who wrote unfavourably about Gilels commented on the fact that he was a member of the Communist Party, but they conveniently forget to mention that he joined in 1942. At the height of a terrifying war, this act of patriotism was upheld by many. In this case Gilels’ action serves only to confirm his loyalty to his country and as a demonstrative protest against fascism. On the Front he played the music of the ‘emigrant’ Rachmaninov, famously captured on film, and in besieged Leningrad he performed the ‘anti-Soviet’ Stravinsky. Furthermore, in 1953 he initiated a Medtner-revival not only through performing his works, but also through his article, About Medtner, published in the journal Soviet Music.

In the years between 1950 and 1970 Gilels was a hugely respected musician both in the USSR and abroad. He was also able to find the happiness and stability of family life. He married Farizet (Lala) Hutzistova, a graduate from the Moscow Conservatory, at the end of the 1940s. He shared the rest of his life with Farizet, and together they raised a daughter, Elena, who graduated from the Moscow Conservatory in the class of Yakov Flier. Among Elena Gilels’ piano duo and duets with her father are many treasures – not in the least Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos in E flat major K. 365 (under Rudolf Barshai and Karl Bohm), and Schubert’s Fantasy in F minor for Piano Duet.

Since his youth Gilels secured an irrefutable place amongst the world’s greatest musicians. He was respected by the leading performers of the twentieth century: Vladimir Horowitz, Artur Rubinstein, Alexander Borovsky, Isaac Stern, Jascha Heifetz, Fritz Kreisler and Marian Anderson. Marc Chagall and Salvador Dali presented him with their autographs. His stature was acknowledged by Charlie Chaplin, Francis Poulenc and Jean Sibelius. The retired Arturo Toscanini, by way of exception, welcomed Emil Gilels to his residence. Josef Hoffmann wrote about Gilels to his friends. Distinguished conductors including Otto Klemperer, Eugene Ormandy, Leonard Bernstein, Herbert von Karajan, Riccardo Muti, George Szell, Lorin Maazel, Kurt Mazur, Georg Solti, Igor Markevich, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Andre Cluytens, Fritz Reiner, Karl Bohm, Leopold Ludwig, Eugen Jochum, Franz Konwitschny, Erich Leinsdorf, Pietro Argento, Seiji Ozawa, Malcolm Sargent, Paavo Berglund and Zubin Mehta performed with him.

Gilels was invited to the Royal Residencies in both London and Brussels. He was welcomed at the headquarters of the UN, and granted an audience with the Pope at the Vatican. Despite being notoriously reluctant about giving interviews, Gilels was constantly surrounded by the attention of journalists and photographers. Upon returning from the reception of a president or monarch Gilels had no qualms about visiting the disgraced pensioner Nikita Khrushchev. Gilels received many offers to stay in the West, where in a matter of months he would have become a millionaire. However, Gilels would not allow such conversations and loyally returned to his homeland where he would duly receive the one-fiftieth share of his foreign earnings – the rest being taken by the government.

In the USSR Gilels was immensely respected by the most authoritative Artists including Sergei Prokofiev, Dmitri Shostakovich, Aram Khachaturian, Dmitri Kabalevsky, Rodion Schedrin, Andrei Eshpai, Vladimir Sofronitsky, Konstantin Igumnov, Samuil Feinberg, Victor Merzhanov, Mstislav Rostropovich, Daniil Shafran, David Oistrakh, Leonid Kogan and Ivan Kozlovsky. When Gilels was still a child his talent was recognized by the actors Vasily Kachalov and Fayina Ranevskaya.

Despite his huge international acclaim and unprecedented scale of the appraisal by the world’s foremost cultural figures, within the USSR Gilels was unjustly undervalued. The seeds of this divergence were scattered by Heinrich Neuhaus who at first misunderstood Gilels’ talent, and then in the years following the Second World War created an artificial opponent to his pianism – Sviatoslav Richter. This situation played straight into the hands of the critics, who already at the beginning of Gilels’ career, were quick to spread the myth that Gilels is first and foremost a ‘virtuoso’ with many limitations who constantly tries to ‘improve himself’ and ‘understand music.’ Sofia Khentova’s book, Emil Gilels, published in 1959 and in a further edition in 1967, did much to fuel such theories. In spite of a wide range of important factual information it was completely misconstrued and did not reflect the essence of Gilels’ pianism or character. Both Khentova and other authors were quick to erroneously attribute Gilels’ fame in the USSR to a strong empathy on his side to Soviet ideology. Additionally there were many attempts to trivialize his worldwide achievement and fame. The best book written about Gilels was begun by Lev Barenboim, but tragically with the end in sight the author died, and shortly afterwards so did his protagonist, Gilels. Subsequently, with the help of the families of these two deceased musicians, the book was edited and published by T. Golland.

Gilels had to his name the Peoples’ Artist of the USSR, was a recipient of the Lenin Prize (1962), and in 1976 in honour of his sixtieth birthday was bestowed the highest possible governmental award – Hero of Socialist Labour. However, his performance of the complete Beethoven concerto cycle with Kurt Mazur in the Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatory (on occasion of Gilels’ sixtieth birthday), produced hardly a ripple in the Soviet press. Both in these and previous reviews one would be hard-pressed to find any other comment except that ‘the virtuoso continues to mature as a musician.’ A solitary exception to this vicious circle was an article published by Yakov Flier who thoroughly understood and reflected upon the stature and importance of Gilels’ pianism.

Besides the biased criticism that was circulated about Gilels, his incredible modesty also played its part in forming the unjust valuation of his achievements. In addition his moral standards, honesty and truthfulness meant that he could sometimes be harsh on those who did not fit his high expectations in terms of character or professionalism. Gilels distanced himself from any aesthetic that was foreign to his nature or ethics and paid the price – a price that continues to take its toll even after death, but without this he would have been an entirely different person. This defiance of character is heard in his playing.