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The secret torments of Emil Gilels

I have received a short memoir of the great Soviet pianist from the Israeli conductor, Uri Segal. Unlike his great rival, Sviatoslav Richter, little is known of Gilels (1916-85) outside of the official version – that he was a loyal servant of the system. Segal adds a personal dimension:

It was in 1982, in Helsingborg, Sweden that I had the great fortune of collaborating with Emil
Gilels, conducting Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto Nº1 in Bb minor  for him.
encounter which turned to be a memorable one for me in more then one way, was a  “miracle” in itself: At that time no Soviet
musician was allowed by the Soviet régime to perform with Israeli colleagues,
and so the collaboration between Mr. Gilels and myself should have been
forbidden. Anyway, to my great amazement it was allowed to happen.


After the first rehearsal with the Helsingborg Symphony
Mr. Gilels asked me to join him for lunch at the hotel bistro and a conversation
ensued between us: (Gilels’ wife Lala, was not feeling very well and preferred
to rest in the room upstairs)


Gilel: “Have you ever been to Russia”?

Segal: “No”.

Gilels: “Have you ever been to a communist

Segal: “Yes. I have been to Poland (touring the
Stuttgart Radio Orchestra in 1972)

Gilels: “And what was your impression”?

Segal: ” Well, it was mixed. However, when I took
my seat on the plane back to the West
I felt a great relief”.

Gilels: “I want to show you something”.


At that point Gilels drew out of his purse a piece of
yellow newspaper cutting in which a few words were underlined in red. It was a
cutting of the New York Times from 1962 describing the press reception given to
Stravinsky on his returne back to the US from his visit to Russia, his first
visit in 48 years. To the question by the press was there anything he liked
about the USSR Strvinsky replied there were indeed two things he did like about
it, namely “the vodka and the exit visa
(Stravinsky was regarded as an “émigré traitor to the Motherland” by
the Soviet régime).


I was touched to the core of my heart. Gilels was
keeping this piece of newspaper all those years in his purse as a kind of
“secret moto” and at a tremendous risk to himself, and what’s more, he
trusted me enough to unravel it to me (at a time the harsh Brezhnev régime is
still raging).


That evening I was invited by the Gilels to their room for tea and Mr. Gilels was very interested to hear my view on Schoenberg. He was
very happy and proud about a recent trip to Vienna where he played and recorded Mozart Double Concerto with his daughter Elena and the Vienna Phiharmonic under Karl Böhm. He said there was nothing better in life.

 The evening of the concert Gilels and I were supposed to meet at a certain time in the hotel lobby to be driven to the concert-hall together. I came down at the appointed time and Gilels was not there. I waited and waited and then tried to call his room but the phone was constantly busy.

Finally he came down. He looked pale and  extremely shaken, trembling all over he said “They are killing me. Look, my hands are shaking. How do they want me to play a concert now”. It was the KGB harassing him. It was pretty awful.

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  1. This is an absolutely heartbreaking account. Although we’ve all heard things over the years, I suspect that none of us in the West can truly comprehend how it was for artists trying to survive and create under such circumstances. I am a co-admin of a Facebook site devoted to the late Willis Conover, whose nightly shortwave jazz broadcasts were a beacon of hope for millions of musicians and listeners who tuned in at great personal risk to hear “the music of freedom,” Willis’ term for jazz. Co-admin Marie Ciliberti, formerly with the Voice of America Russian service and a colleague of Conover’s, and I were both very moved by this. Although Gilels was not a jazz musician, I thought it should be shared on the Conover page to give readers an idea of what musicians of all types had to go through under such a régime. Also, we need to remember that artistic freedom is precious and still needs to be protected around the world. Thank you, Norman!

  2. I remember from my studies in the St Petersburg conservatory that the exit visa was still one of the best things Russia could offer (together with vodka of course). It is crazy that in the 21st century you are not allowed to go to your home country from Russia without an exit visa. The visa official of the conservatory (by the name of Larisa) was one of the most corrupt persons I have ever met and she made loads of money since no foreign student could get home without bribing her first. You still can get a taste of good old Soviet Union in the modern Russia…

  3. Martha Brunelle says:

    I was privileged to hear Gilels play in Montclair, NJ. I presented him with flowers on stage and was thrilled by his then three magnificent encores, full of Gilels-energy!!!
    He was the finest pianist in the world. And, I so miss him and wish he was not destined to meet such an untimely death, waiting for his rationed medical care, and his bladder apparently bursting because they didn’t get to him on time – NOT his turn YET! Obama-care people wake up! We don’t want rationed care! I miss Gilels so much and plan to hunt for CD’s of his recordings – precious precious recordings of a genius. GOD BLESS GILELS!

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