The 10 Greatest Pianists of All Time

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5. Emil Gilels (1916-1985)

Who was he? An Odessa-born pianist who moved to Moscow in 1935, becoming, along with Richter, the leading Soviet pianist of his day. He and violinist David Oistrakh were among the first Soviet musicians allowed to concertise in the West.

What makes him great? His “golden” sound – an ability to execute the most taxing passages without compromising his burnished tone or depth of feeling.

Cédric Tiberghien on the grandeur of Gilels

“Gilels has this mixture of fantastic tone quality and an ability to make everything seem simple when you listen to him. Even when he plays a simple Bach prelude, or the Bach-Siloti Prelude in B minor, you think it’s simple to play, but then you buy the music and you’re like, ‘Oh my god, this is impossible!’ 

"I first heard Gilels when I was eight or nine – his recording of the Brahms Second Concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic. I wasn’t aware it was Gilels – or even a Brahms concerto – just one of my dad’s huge collection of cassette tapes. But it was my favourite music, and still today I think it’s one of the most beautiful recordings ever made of a piano concerto. The quality of tone and line, the inspiration and the beauty of the sound – everything is so perfect. It’s actually quite intimidating when you have to play the concerto yourself. He plays the first movement so slowly, and you think, OK, I’m going to do the same – which is a big mistake because he’s Gilels and you’re not. You need that golden sound Gilels possessed – more than anyone in history – as well as a clear idea of the structure and direction; and for this you need a lifetime of experience. Also, if I compare my hand to his, his was probably twice as heavy as mine. It’s like Oistrakh on the violin, there’s that question of flesh, pure matter creating the sound. If you have extremely thin hands, the quality of tone will probably be clearer than Gilels’. 

"So I don’t try to imitate an artist like him, but I try to keep in my head the grandeur of what he does. It’s something I always try to find, not artificially, but perhaps just to feel. So he’s a model for me in that respect.” 

Also chosen by: Alice Sara Ott, Olli Mustonen, Lars Vogt…


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The 10 Greatest Pianists of All Time
Glenn Gould
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