Emil Grigoryevich Gilels (October 19, 1916 – October 14, 1985) was a Soviet pianist. He was born Samuil Hilels in Odessa to a musical Jewish family; both his parents were musicians. He began studying the piano at 6 under Yakov Tkach, a stern disciplinarian who emphasized scales and studies. Gilels later credited this strict training as establishing the foundation for his technique. Gilels made public debut at the age of 12 in June 1929 with a well-received program of Beethoven, Scarlatti, Chopin and Schumann. In 1930 he entered the Odessa Conservatory where he was coached by Berta Reingbald, whom Gilels credited as a formative influence.
In 1933 Emil Gilels won the newly-founded All Soviet Union Piano Competition at age 16. After graduating from the Odessa Conservatory (Ukraine) in 1935, he moved to Moscow, where he studied under the famous piano teacher Heinrich Neuhaus until 1937. A year later, at age 21, he won the Ysaÿe International Festival in Brussels, beating such competitors as Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli and Moura Lympany.
Emil Gilels was the first Soviet artist to be allowed to travel extensively in the West. After the war, he toured Europe starting from 1947 as a concert pianist, and made his American debut in 1955 playing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in Philadelphia. He taught as a professor for the Moscow Conservatory after 1952. In his later years he remained in his native Russia and rarely ventured abroad. He was the winner of the prestigious Stalin Prize in 1946, the Order of Lenin in 1961 and 1966 and the Lenin Prize in 1962. Emil Gilels premiered Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 8, dedicated to Mira Mendelssohn, on December 30, 1944, at the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory.
Emil Gilels is regarded by many as one of the most significant pianists of the 20th century and is universally admired for his superb technical control and burnished tone. His interpretations of the central German-Austrian classics formed the core of his repertoire, in particular Beethoven, Johannes Brahms and Schumann, but he was equally illuminative in Scarlatti, Bach as well as 20th-century music like Debussy, Bartók and Prokofiev. His Franz Liszt was also first-class, and his recordings of the Hungarian Rhapsody nº 6 and the Sonata in B minor have acquired classic status in some circles. He was in the midst of completing a complete survey of Beethoven’s piano sonatas for the German record company Deutsche Grammophon when he died after a medical check-up in 1985 in Moscow. Sviatoslav Richter who knew Gilels quite well reported that he was killed accidentally by the Russian doctor responsible for the check-up.