Emil Gilels
piano | Russian Federation, °1916 - 1985
 
PIANO 1938 : First Prize
Emil Gilels was born in Odessa. He did not come from a musical family: his father worked as a clerk in the sugar refinery and his mother looked after the large family. At the age of five and a half he was taken to Yakov Tkach, a famous piano pedagogue in Odessa. He completed his first period of studies with unprecedented ease. In 1929 aged twelve, he gave his first public concert. In 1930 he was accepted to the conservatory in Odessa into the class of Berta Reingbald. Her main goal was his participation in the First All-Union Competition of Performers which was announced to take place in 1933 in Moscow. Gilels’ playing created a sensation - when he finished his programme the auditorium rose up in tumultuous ovation and even the jury stood to applaud. The question of first prize was not even discussed: in a unanimous decision Gilels was announced the winner. The competition changed Emil’s life - he was suddenly famous throughout the land. Following the competition, Gilels embarked on an extensive concert tour around the USSR.

Gilels graduated from the Odessa Conservatory in the autumn of 1935. Subsequently, he was accepted into the class of Heinrich Neuhaus as a postgraduate student at the Moscow Conservatory, and Gilels renewed his commitment to giving concerts. The phenomenon, ‘Gilels’, found its recognition from the outside. Upon arriving to Moscow at the start of 1936, the conductor Otto Klemperer performed Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor Opus 37 with none other than Gilels as the soloist. In 1936 he participated in his first international competition - the International Vienna Music Academy Competition. Despite attracting the attention of Europe and the unquestionable prestige of being a finalist, he looked upon the second place awarded to him as a failure. First place was awarded to his friend Jacob Flier - an intensely Romantic pianist.

In 1938 Gilels and Flier set off to the Queen Elisabeth Competition. They were expected to uphold the victories of the Soviet violinists, lead by David Oistrakh a year earlier, and to return in triumph. Gilels was awarded the first prize and Flier took the third. The whole musical world began to talk about Emil Gilels. Following the competition he was meant to embark on a lengthy concert tour, including a tour of the USA. These plans were abruptly interrupted by the Second World War. On home soil Gilels became a hero: he received a medal for his achievements, was greeted by a welcome party upon his return and in the Soviet consciousness his name sounded in equal rank with the names of famous explorers, pilots and film stars.

Emil Gilels completed his postgraduate studies in 1938 and began teaching at the Moscow Conservatory (from 1952 becoming a professor). His pedagogical work continued sporadically until 1976, but because of the huge demands of his concerts he could not devote much time to teaching. Nevertheless his class numbered important pianists such as Marina Mdivani, Valery Afanassiev, Igor Zhukov and the pianist-composer Vladimir Blok.

When the war broke out he was not evacuated with the conservatory. Instead he joined the civilian resistance and following an order for his return, he began to perform on the Front and in hospitals. At the start of 1943 he performed Stravinsky’s bravura piece Petrushka to the weary inhabitants of besieged Leningrad.

When the war ended Emil Gilels was to undertake a special mission. He was to represent the Art of a victorious country. He took to the stage amongst the ruins of Eastern Europe, and soon after the war he went on concert tours of Italy, the United Kingdom, France, Austria, Scandinavia and numerous other countries. Every European country considered it a great privilege to invite Gilels to perform or record. He was decorated with medals and honours - the public worshiped him.

In 1955 Emil Gilels became the first Soviet Artist, since the Second World War, to travel on a concert tour of the USA. The years between the 1950s and 1970s saw him at the height of his powers in all aspects of his playing. 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.

Emil Gilels also played in ensembles: with pianists Flier and Zak, and later with his daughter Elena Gilels; violinists Elisabeth 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 he collaborated with the Amadeus Quartet and the Sibelius Academy Quartet.

Emil Gilels’ commitment to the recording studio was as intensive as his commitment to his concert tours : he recorded with many record companies, including Melodiya, Angel, Ariola, EMI, Eterna and Deutsche Grammophon. 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. He 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 the middle of the 1970s Emil Gilels started to limit any activities that were not directly related to his performing. He retired as a jury member of international piano competitions and stopped teaching.

Emil 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.
Program
Final (29/05/1938)
Pyotr Tchaikovsky Concerto n. 1 in B flat minor op. 23
Johannes Brahms Variations on a Theme by Paganini op. 35 I
Felix Mendelssohn Scherzo (Le songe d'une nuit d'été)
Richard Wagner Mort d'Yseult
Mily Balakirev Islamey
Franz Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody n. 6 in D flat major
Joseph Jongen Toccata
Emil Gilels
Orchestre Symphonique de l'INR, dir. Franz André
Relive the performances of Piano 2021
H.M. Queen Mathilde
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