Spare a thought for Emil Gilels, still revered today by Russians as the foremost pianist of the Soviet era. The first to win a competition abroad (Brussels, 1938), Gilels was also first to be let out after Stalin died to reconnect cultural ties and earn hard dollars for the state coffers, of which he got back a few cents.
Universally acclaimed, Gilels made countless recordings, among them an unsurpassed pair of Brahms concertos on Deutsche Grammophon and a transcendent set of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, a performance so revelatory I use it to demonstrate the inexpressible difference between an interpreter of genius and all the rest. Gilels, abroad, played the role of Homo Sovieticus. At home, he was a haunted man.
Two nemeses stood between this great artist and his right to serenity — his arch-rival, Sviatoslav Richter, and his brother-in-law, Leonid Kogan. Richter was regarded outside Russia as the superior pianist, imaginative beyond words and free as a bird. Where Gilels toed the party line, Richter did exactly as he pleased, refusing to sign Kremlin manifestos and shaking off his KGB minders to go cruising boy bars in Paris and Berlin. He was a law unto himself and a living reproach to the quiet, uxorious Gilels who tried to get along by causing no fuss.
At the first Tchaikovsky competition in 1958, both sat on the jury. Richter gave Van Cliburn top marks and zero to most others. Gilels went trembling to the minister of culture, asking if it was all right to let an American win. The minister went to party chairman Khrushchev, who said it was.
Richter would sometimes offer Gilels a public compliment, only half-barbed. Gilels, I am told, never said a word about Richter, public or private. He couldn’t. The man blocked out his sunlight.