The reputation of pianist Yakov Flier (also transliterated as Fliyer) 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. Gilels, then 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 1960s and '70s Flier managed to develop a conspicuous following in Western Europe and the United States, not to mention the Soviet Union. His repertory was rich in Romantics, favoring Schumann, Chopin, Brahms, Liszt, and Rachmaninov, though it did include contemporaries like 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.
Yakov Flier was born on October 21, 1912, in the city of Orekhovo-Zuyevo (east of Moscow), Russia. He studied piano at the Moscow Conservatory under the renowned pedagogue Konstantin Igumnov. Flier graduated in 1934 as one of the USSR's most promising keyboard prospects. He lived up to that hope: in 1936 he won first prize at the prestigious Vienna International Piano Competition, ahead of Emil Gilels.
The following year he joined the faculty at the Moscow Conservatory and would eventually become a professor (1945) and chair of the piano department (1965). Over the years his students included composer Rodion Shchedrin, Viktoria Postnikova, and Mikhail Pletnev. In 1938 Flier finished third in the Eugene Ysaÿe Competition in Brussels, an event won, ironically, by Gilels. After fading somewhat during the postwar years because of his exclusive focus on chamber concerts, he began building an international reputation in the 1960s: his debut in the U.K. was in 1962 and although he drew high praise internationally, he was generally eclipsed abroad by Richter and Gilels during his final decade-and-a-half.