The Russian pianist and pedagogue, Yakov [Jacob, Jakob, Yakoff] (VIadimirovich) Flier [Fliyer, Fliere], was a pupil at the Moscow Conservatory of Kozlovsky and the renowned pedagogue Konstantin Igumnov, graduating in 1934 as one of the USSR's most promising keyboard prospects. He lived up to that hope: He won 1st Prize in the Second All-Union Piano Competition in 1935. And just a year later (1936), he bested his rival, Emil Gilels, to take first prize at the prestigious Vienna International Piano Competition (Emil Gilels finished 2nd). In 1938 Flier finished 3rd in the Eugene Ysaÿe Competition in Brussels, an event won, ironically, by Emil Gilels.
Yakov Flier was one of the greatest Soviet pianists. By the end of the 1930’s, he had become one of the most popular concert pianists in the Soviet Union. From 1935 he made tours in Russia, and later appeared abroad. After fading somewhat during the postwar years because of his exclusive focus on chamber concerts, he began building an international reputation in the 1960’s: his debut in the UK was in 1962 and although he drew high praise internationally, he was generally eclipsed abroad by Sviatoslav Richter and Emil Gilels during his final decade-and-a-half.
In 1937 Yakov Flier joined the faculty at the Moscow Conservatory and would eventually become a professor (1945) and chair of the piano department (1965). Among his notable students were the composer Rodion Shchedrin, and the pianists Bella Davidovich, Vladimir Feltsman, Mikhail Pletnev, Viktoria Postnikova, and Mûza Rubackyté.
The reputation of Yakov Flier faded after his death in 1977, but recent interest in his recordings and career has somewhat revived his name. In fact, he was one of the leading Soviet pianists of his day and might have had far greater success internationally had Cold War politics not encumbered his career. Emil Gilels, then Sviatoslav Richter, and finally Lazar Berman were granted permission by Soviet cultural czars to concertize abroad, and so too was Flier. But, unlike that star-studded trio, Flier did not live long after he first appeared in the West. That said, he also played a significant role in limiting his performing career by devoting much of his energies to teaching, and by abandoning solo concerts for a whole decade (1949-1959). It is not surprising then that he made fewer concert tours than many lesser-known pianists and produced comparatively few recordings. Still, in the 1960’s and 1970’s Flier managed to develop a conspicuous following in Western Europe and the USA, not to mention the Soviet Union. His repertoire was rich in Romantics, favoring Robert Schumann, Frédéric Chopin, Johannes Brahms, Franz Liszt, and Sergei Rachmaninov, though it did include contemporaries like Dmitry Kabalevsky. Flier's recordings were made for the Soviet label Melodiya, but several of them have been reissued now on Brilliant Classics, Globe, and Russian Compact Disc.