In 1955, Russian pianist Emil Gilels (1916-985) made his debut in the United States, being one of a handful of musicians allowed to tour outside the Iron Curtain. His entourage, like other touring musicians from the Soviet Union, included several ‘friends’ who were KGB operatives prepared to shoot in case Gilels tried to seek asylum.
He made two recordings with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony – the Tchaikovsky 1st Piano Concerto and the Brahms 2nd – which were distinguished by an unusually refined technical virtuosity, delicacy but full-blooded musicality. He and Reiner, who was otherwise notorious for scathing sarcasm with orchestra members, had a most congenial relationship. (Many years later, Gilels was collaborating with the young Simon Rattle who made a mess with his conducting. Gilels jumped up from the piano bench and screamed at the young maestro for his stupidity. Since then, Rattle’s conducting has drastically improved.)
When Gilels was complimented for his playing during his first appearances, he replied, “Wait until you hear Richter.” He was referring to his good friend, pianist Sviatoslav Richter (1915-1997) who first toured the U.S. in 1960. Richter was a big, broad-shouldered man with huge hands that swept across the piano with dazzling power, unlike Gilels who was shorter and had smaller hands.
Two outstanding Richter recordings are his ones of the 2 Piano Concertos of Franz Liszt and of Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto. I would also add his record of Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata, one that Gilels did very well with a much different approach from Richter.
Richter had a miraculous memory for the names of every single individual he ever met, no matter how briefly, and found it annoying. He also preferred doing free concerts for small groups in such places as a country church.
Both pianists have recordings accessible on YouTube.
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