Denise De Vries-Tolkowsky: My friend Emil Gilels
His Biography? Simple, exceptional and brilliant. He began his piano studies in Odessa, where he was born in 1916, with such reknowned professors as Tkatch and Reingbald. At 13 he gave his first recital, and soon after began his arduous studies under Professor Neuhaus at the Moscow Conservatory, also gaining there an overall cultural formation. When he was barely 15 years old, he astounded the public, winning the first prize in the National Competition of the Soviet Union. The people of Moscow still speak of how a completely unknown youth assuredly walked onto the stage of the conservatory, facing an exhausted jury and an indifferent public, positioned his hands on the piano, and …half an hour later… how an ecstatic audience and jury stood up, tears in their eyes, and hugging each other (they were Slavic music-lovers!) unanimously acclaiming him, thus, as the Americans would say, „A star was born!“
Already, one could notice the sparkling genius of this red-headed teenager. The same enthusiasm also greeted him at his appearance at the International Ysaye Competition in Brussels in 1938, where he won the 1sr Prize. I still vividly remember how wildly enthusiastic my-then future- husband and I were when we heard Guilels performing the Brahms-Paganini Variiations. Alex had, during the same week. Just won the Brailowsky Prize in Liège , and had only been able to listen on the radio…
War broke out, and in ist brutal manner, shattered our budding careers, Guilels played repeatedly on the front in Leningrad, a city besieged, starving and frozen. At the end of the war in 1945, we knew nothing of the fates of our friends from other countries. We asked ourselves whether or not Guilels was still alive. It was then that I saw a film from Russia in a movie theater in Brussels, about the horrors that had occured in the Soviet Union. Suddenly, on the screen, appeared a young pianist playing the Prelude in g minor of Rachmaninov, in an absolutely fantastic manner, and in an even more incredible surrounding: on an air-strip for the pilots, who soon, clearly would have to be flying toward the front: IT WAS GUILELS!! But he would have to wait until 1954 before he would be able to make his triumphant debut in Paris. This was followed in 1955 in Philadelphia, with Ormandy, where he then received a before unheard of success. (Some fifteen years later, Ormandy would compare the debut of Mayumi Fujikawa, scholarship student of the Alex de Vries Foundation, with that of Guilels).
Finally in 1956, Alex and I met Guilels. Alex and he sat together on the jury of the Queen Elisabeth Competition, it was evident from the beginning that there would be a deep, understanding friendship between us. Guilels was continually on tour in Europe and America, and later in Japan. He played under the greatest conductors, with the most reknowned orchestras, recorded discs, was requested to play at the most prestigious festivals, sat on juries, became professor at the Moscow Conservatory, and met with the most famous people of his time, among them: John F. Kennedy, Willy Brandt, the Pope, and Queen Elisabeth of Belgium (who received him only one month before her death). In his own land he received the highest distinction of being named chairman of the reknowned Tchaikovsky Competition. He played many concerts throughout the Soviet Union, and for a while, played in a trio with his brother-in-law, violinist, Leonid KOGAN (recently deceased), and cellist Mstislav ROSTROPOVITCH.
His repertoire is seemingly limitless, and his recordings numerous. (I myself have over 100!). People continually ask „What is Emil Guilels really like?“ How can one really know the personality, the essence of such a brilliant man? Only through listening to his playing can one begin to have an answer. Indeed, in his playing one can hear the sensitivity of his touch. i.e.- in the Andante con moto of Schubert’s Sonata in D Major; and his deep and thoughtful interpretation of the slow movement of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto leaves one breathless, thus becoming convinced that his seemingly surly physique is used as an attempt to protect a very deep sensitivity. Whenever one is subjected to his irresistable vitality, and his surprising spirit during his performance of the 8th Sonata of Prokofiev, one is under the impression that one is hearing four pianists, thus sensing clearly through the music, a force, masterly personage.
Those who had the privilege of his friendship know that Guilels was highly sensitive to human suffering, and that he had a reserved, but none-the-less sincere interest for his friends, something that is exceptional in this world of egocentric, self-centered musicians.
How difficult it is for me now to write about all this in the past tense… all the remembrances of a thirty year friendship cascade upon me. How can one speak, or even write about such an exceptional friend? He was by my side after my husband died, and I was by chance, near him in Amsterdam in 1981 when he became sick. I then stayed a week, close to him and his wife, as he lay in the hospital with a serious „warning“ for his heart. He made me promise to say nothing about his condition or what had happened so that he would be able to continue performing. Music was his entire life. I had to answer the countless telephone calls that streamed in from all corners of the world, and in every language, saying: „ Mr. Guilels is only very tired – ermüdet – oververmoeid – surmené – tsukareta – pereoe – tomlenyje – I don’t know if I sounded very convincing…
The hard worker who Guilels was, could not accept to lead a more leisurely life. He played less frequently, often cancelled concerts but continued unrelentlessly to work on his repertoire. He relearned pieces that he had played in his youth which required great physical efforts: such as the Brahms-Paganini Variations (the two books!) and a number of new compositions that previously were not in his repertoire, by Scriabin and Schumann. He continued to make recordings of the Beethoven Sonatas including a monumental „Hammerklavier“, but alas, not the Op.111 that I so often heard him play. His goal to record all the 32 sonatas by Beethoven was never achieved. I always had the quiet hope that I would receive a telephone call from him telling me that my beloved Op.111 had been recorded. Many years ago something similar occured. I arrived at his hotel suite in New York City, where he sat at the piano playing some of the shorter pieces of Grieg. I said to him that I would love if it he would play these pieces in concert „No,“ he said, „I play these at home only for my pleasure“.
Several years passed. He called me up inviting me for lunch with his producer at „Deutsche Grammaphon Gesellschaft“ (Guilels and Szeryng always saw to it that I would meet interesting people for the „children“ of the Foundation). We sat on a terrace in sunny Salzburg, and my two table companions began speaking about the upcoming recording project they were going to make. Suddenly I remembered Grieg and his picturesque „Lyric Pieces“ that so fit with this unique landscape, and I began telling the producer that Guilels played these pieces so delightfully, and why shouldn’t he put them on disc? Guilels grimaced – he had a very mobile and expressive face – and shook his head NO! All the while the „DGG“ man stared at me astonished. „Aber das ist gar nicht möglich; wer kauft so was?!“ (Impossible! Who would buy it?) And that was that… Then, late one evening in 1974, the telephone rang. It was Guilels. I was so surprised because I thought he was still in Moscow, and he never phoned me from there. He said that he was in Berlin, and I said that surely he must have heard Mayumi (Fujikawa, my adopted-daughter, who he knew well) playing, because she had just played the night before in Berlin. „No,“ he said, „ I have been closed up in a studio of DGG.“ He paused, and then continued, „ I have made a recording of the entire LYRIC SUITE of Grieg. „The next summer, when I was back in Salzburg, I ran across the DGG producer, and he told me that the „Grieg“ recording was, of all Guilel’s recordings the „best-seller“. „Actually, I really should be giving you a percentage,“ he said.
Unfortunately, there shall be no more middle-of-the-night telephone calls. Fortunately however, there are many discs to perpetuate the unparalleled piano playing of Guilels, and perhaps the grandson of Guilels, together with his mother Elena shall continue the tradition.
When I was in Moscow, shortly after the funeral, Kiril, then six years old, played for me a piece of Haydn. I had heard, over a period of several days all the children of MY Russian „children“, all excellent and very talented, but it was here I realized with a shock what the essential „self“ of Guilels genius was. His unique sonority. And I, I was speachless.