Emil Gilels (October 19, 1916 – October 14, 1985) is considered by many to be one of the greatest pianists of all time. He led the way to the West for the great post-war generation of classical performers from the Soviet Union. Before his iconic peers — with pianist Sviatoslav Richter, violinist David Oistrakh and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich prime among them — Gilels was allowed to travel widely in the West, as a standard bearer for Soviet culture. He made a sensational American concert debut in 1955 with Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, going on to record the work with the Chicago Symphony under Fritz Reiner. Five years later, he was the soloist for the first performance of a Soviet orchestra in the U.S., performing the Tchaikovsky concerto with the Moscow State Symphony at Carnegie Hall. Hailed in the West for his leonine athleticism at the keyboard — with “a Romantic bravura and imposing sonority that could penetrate any orchestra” — Gilels enjoyed critical acclaim across five decades; the Los Angeles Times noted “his flair both for thunderous virtuosity and songful tonal manipulation,” while The New York Times praised his “formidable, high-finish technique and beautiful control of nuance” later in his career.
Born in 1916, Gilels was raised as a musician from a young age in Odessa, Ukraine, giving his first public concert at age 12. He earned a name in the West in 1938 by winning Ysaÿe International Competition (later renamed the Queen Elisabeth Competition), in Brussels. In 1944, Gilels premiered Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 8. That same decade, he formed a piano trio with Rostropovich and violinist Leonid Kogan, recording Haydn, Beethoven and Schumann. The pianist would win many state prizes in the U.S.S.R., and he chaired the jury of the inaugural International Tchaikovsky Competition that bravely awarded the gold medal to American pianist Van Cliburn in 1958.
Although less iconoclastic and charismatic than his contemporary Sviatoslav Richter — whom he admired — Gilels remained in high demand on both sides of the Iron Curtain. He recorded extensively for Russia’s Melodiya label and for RCA, Columbia, EMI and Deutsche Grammophon in the West. The pianist left famous versions of the two Brahms concertos with Eugen Jochum and the Berlin Philharmonic, as well as a complete Beethoven cycle with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra. Solo, Gilels ranged successfully from Scarlatti, Chopin, Schubert, Brahms and Liszt to Scriabin, Rachmaninoff, Debussy, Stravinsky and Bartók, engaging with living composers via Prokofiev and Shostakovich. Gilels turned to solo Mozart late in life, and he also recorded a hit LP of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, raising the mainstream profile of the Nordic miniatures. At his death in 1985 at age 68, Gilels was working on a studio traversal of Beethoven’s complete piano sonatas, leaving five unrecorded. His version of the “Hammerklavier” Sonata won a Gramophone Award in 1984.