First and foremost, I would like to point out, that what I have written here about the extraordinary human and musical fellowship between the conductor Yuri Ahronovitch and the pianist Emil Gilels is but a very small part of what both artists could have remembered and told themselves. All I am writing here is either some of the things I heard from my late husband, Yuri Ahronovitch, or reminiscences of their two last meetings, and one, last, phone call, which I have witnessed.
When in 1938, Emil Gilels was awarded the first prize at the Ysaye International Festival in Brussels, Yuri Ahronovitch was six years old, studying the violin in Leningrad, his home town, dreaming to become some day a conductor.
In 1957, when Gilels was already a well-established, famous pianist, he heard about the highly gifted young conductor, Yuri Ahronovitch, who was at the time appointed chief conductor and musical director of the Yaroslavl Philharmonic Orchestra, and soon was well-known throughout the Soviet Union. (An echo of his reputation, can be found in the recently published memoirs and correspondence, of the great Russian pianist, Maria Veniaminovna Yudina, who in one of her letters wrote: ..On the next day, I was to play a concert with the genial, 23 years-old conductor, Yuri Ahronovitch.)
One of the first things Yuri Ahronovitch did after assuming his position in Yaroslavl was to invite Emil Gilels, whom he deeply admired and respected, to perform with him there. He was overjoyed when Gilels accepted his invitation, asking to play the Saint Saens Piano Concerto. The concert was fixed to take place in December 1957. The arrival of Emil Gilels in Yaroslavl was celebrated like a national festivity, the whole town brimming with excitement.
During their first rehearsals, Gilels seemed to have been a bit severe and skeptical, but very soon, an outstanding human and musical collaboration evolved between the two artists, to the extent that after the concert Gilels took off his tuxedo and handed it to Yuri saying that this is a gift, a token of his high appreciation, and in memory of their first, greatly successful concert together. Yuri was thrilled, surprised and enormously thankful, wearing that precious tuxedo on special occasions, until 1974, when during a concert in Venice the tuxedo finally fell apart.
The Yaroslavl concert marked the beginning of an extraordinary friendship and musical collaboration between these two outstanding artists and personalities. Many more concerts were to follow, among them:
In October 1962, in Yaroslavl, Yuri conducted, with Emil Gilels and Leonid Kogan as soloists, performing compositions by Aram Khachaturian. The composer himself attended the concert.
In February 1963, Yuri conducted the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, with Gilels playing piano concertos by Poulenc and Chopin.
In 1965, Yuri conducted the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra, and Gilels playing Tchaikowskys First Piano Concerto.
Gilels wanted to perform with Yuri also outside the Soviet Union, and even spoke about him with various concert agencies, like the late Sol Hurok in the USA, and artistic directors, such as the late Maestro Francesco Siciliani in Italy. He used to send Yuri postcards from his concert tours abroad, like the one he sent him from New York, on October 23rd 1964: Dear Yurachka, Sending you the most cordial regards, I often think and speak of you…I hope we shall be playing here together…On October 27th 1963 he gave Yuri his photograph with this dedication: Dear Yuri Ahronovitch I wish we could travel together… In 1965 he brought Yuri a gift from one of his trips in the USA, a diary bound in red leather, with a warm dedication.
However, their artistic collaboration came to an abrupt end when Yuri immigrated
to Israel in 1972. As a result, the Soviet authorities and Gosconcert, never allowed Gilels to perform with Yuri, or even meet him. All the requests that Yuri had sent to Gosconcert, inviting Gilels to perform with him at both the Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra and the Cologne Philharmonic orchestra (Gurzenich Orchester), were Yuri was the chief conductor, were rejected, and no permission given.
It has to be mentioned, that all the concerts that Emil Gilels and Yuri Ahronovitch played with the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra, were automatically recorded by the radio, and often by TV as well. But unfortunately, all these precious recordings are no longer to be found, having been destroyed, presumably as a retaliation against Yuri, whose emigration to Israel angered the Soviet Authorities. Therefore, the list of Yuri’s concerts with his Moscow Radio orchestra, including those with Gilels, remain greatly incomplete.
Their only meeting occurred by pure chance, during the Bregenz Music Festival in Austria, in August 1977, when both happened to stay at the same hotel. On August 17th, entering the hotel, we suddendly met Emil Gilels in the hotel lobby, after he and Yuri have not seen each other for six years. Unfortunately, Gilels was not alone, with him was an individual, whom he had to introduce as his “translator” (which he clearly was not, since Gilels spoke very well several languages and had no need of a translator). Obviously, it was a KGB member, whose task it was to report on the pianist to the Soviet authorities. Consequently Gilels had to behave with great caution. He and Yuri exchanged a few warm words, hoping for an occasion to meet without the “translator”. The next morning, Gilels called and asked Yuri to come at once to his room, taking advantage of the fact that the “translator” went out shopping. I was asked to keep an eye on the hotels entrance and signal when the “translator” was back, which I did.
Later Yuri told me, that for both of them, it was a highly emotional meeting and very sad as well. Gilels seemed very tired and discouraged, he spoke critically about the conditions in the Soviet Union, the extensive control and limitations, the constant suspicions and anxieties, and about the fact that the State took the major part of the fees, that he earned on his concert tours abroad. Yuri told him about all the attempts he made to invite him to perform with him, of which Gilels had never been informed by the Gosconcert. Their meeting lasted for about an hour and they were never to meet again.
In the early 1980s, during one of our stays in Stockholm, Yuri received a phone call from Gilels who was in Stockholm as well. He stayed at the Grand Hotel, and we a short distance away across the bay, at the Hotel Diplomat, but nevertheless, it was too risky for Gilels to meet Yuri, as this time as well, he was not alone. They spoke for about 45 minutes, expressing, among many other things, their deepest regret and sorrow for all those long years, lost forever, during which they were prevented so senselessly and arbitrarily, from meeting and making music together.
It was to be their last adieu.
After that conversation Yuri was in tears and for a long time could hardly utter a word.
Jerusaelm, August 30th 2008