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. This 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 country”?

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 motto” 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.


My friend Paul Myers, formerly chief producer at CBS and Decca, has shared with me (and let me share with you) his reminiscence of how the diminutive and retiring Alicia de Larrocha shot to an unlikely American fame.
Step back into the 1960s, when America could be lit up overnight by a classical talent, and pin back your eyelids for Paul’s first-hand account (I wish he’d told me this for my book on the record industry). Here goes:
Dear Norman,
I was very pleased to read your piece about Alicia.  It might amuse you to learn that I was partly responsible for her American ‘re-discovery’ in the 1960’s. 
I was working for Columbia Records, and found myself both head of Epic Classics and its marketing director.  This was no great achievement.  I was producer of George Szell, who wouldn’t talk to John McClure (the Director of Masterworks), and nobody in Epic, which was run as a separate company within Columbia, was interested in classical music.
Epic had two contract artists: Szell/Cleveland (signed to Epic so that he didn’t clash with Bruno Walter on Columbia), and the Juilliard Quartet (to avoid a clash with the Budapest). I added a few more artists – Judith Raskin and the harpsichordist Igor Kipnis – and the rest of my releases were made up of imports from Europe: a contract with Supraphon for Czech artists, with Harmonia Mundi for Jean-Pierre Rampal and finally, with Hispavox for Alicia de
Larrocha, whom I had admired from about the same time as you.
The reason for the long preamble is that I had befriended a man working for a PR agency (not his own) called Herbert Breslin.  He and I used to exchange records by (our own) ‘discoveries’.  He sent me Janet Baker’s first recording, and I sent him the first of Alicia’s Epic recordings.  He was thrilled by her playing, and wanted to know more about her. I remember suggesting that he should persuade Ron Wilford [of CAMI] to get her some bookings, but that he could be her personal representative in the US.
That’s what happened.  Ron placed her with Chicago under Martinon. She also played New York with an all-Spanish recital on the same night that Gilels played an all-Beethoven recital at Carnegie Hall – and still got a full house.  In those days, I had a weekly radio program on WQXR.  I also took her on a tour of the local stations – WBAI, WNCN, WRVR, WQXR – translating their questions into French (I didn’t speak Spanish) and translating her replies back to English.  Nearly all the interviewers asked the same: “Why haven’t you been here for twelve years?” and got the same reply: “Because nobody asked me!”
Anyway, Alicia became a very big hit.  Herbert Breslin represented her (she was his first) and, soon after, Pavarotti came along, he opened his agency and became the monster PR man (in his autobiography, he referred to ‘some guy’ at Columbia who introduced him to Alicia.)
Anyway, the rest is history.  I recorded Alicia’s Iberia Suite with her for Decca and, over the years, saw her regularly at Santander. She was a great artist, and might never have been ‘rediscovered’ if an ambitious young producer at Epic had not been trying to promote some imported records!
Maybe. I think she was so good that she would have been rediscovered anyway.  I’m just glad I helped.