Boris Giltburg in Coversation with Robert Beattie
Boris Giltburg is a young Israeli pianist who earlier this year won the prestigious Queen Elizabeth competition in Brussels. Boris comes from a family of pianists and for 15 years he studied with the renowned pianist and teacher Arie Vardi who has produced a long line of distinguished competition winners including Yefim Bronfman and Yundi Li. Boris launched his international career in a concert with the Philharmonia in 2007 and since that date he has played with a number of the world’s leading orchestras. In 2010 he made his auspicious Proms debut standing in at the last moment for an indisposed Boris Berezovsky and giving a glittering and highly virtuosic account of Liszt’s E flat Concerto.
Boris has released a number of award winning and critically acclaimed recordings including the Prokofiev ‘War Sonatas’ (the last of which he will be playing in the Queen Elizabeth Hall later this month) and sonatas by Rachmaninov, Liszt and Grieg. He previously won the top prize at the Santander Piano competition and second prize at the Rubinstein Competition in Tel Aviv. The Queen Elizabeth Competition in Brussels is one of the world’s leading competitions and winning the top prize has catapulted this young pianist to international stardom. During the course of the competition he impressed the judges with the range and versatility of his playing moving from a cultivated sensitivity in Mozart’s Piano Concerto K450, to a fiendishly difficult new work by Michael Petrossian and crowning his victory by giving a bravura performance of Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto. Boris is clearly not one to be intimidated by difficult scores and, following his competition win, he embarked on a series of concerts where he played Prokofiev’s second piano concerto. Later this month he will be giving a concert in London in which he will be playing Rachmaninov’s Op 23 Preludes and Ravel’s über-virtuosic La Valse as well as the Prokofiev Eighth Sonata.
Boris is a highly intelligent and very affable chap. As well as being a leading international concert pianist, he speaks six languages, he loves to read literary works in numerous languages and he has a keen interest in IT and computers. I spoke to him about his competition win, his interests in literature and languages, his recordings and his forthcoming recitals.
Robert Beattie: Boris, first of all many congratulations on winning the Queen Elizabeth Competition. How important is it for young pianists to win competitions of this sort?
Boris Giltburg: Competitions are one of several paths which pianists can use to help forge an international career. The good thing about them is that the decision lies in your hands: it is the individual competitor who decides to apply and which repertoire to play. However, the jury decides which competitors progress to the next round and who wins the competition. There are clearly several other paths which can help open up an international career e.g. standing in for a big name pianist who is indisposed at a leading concert venue, or simply being heard by the right person at the right time – but these are events which cannot be foreseen or depended upon. Big competitions such as the Chopin, Tchaikovsky and Queen Elizabeth competitions do help to garner prestige and publicity for the winners and they come with a large number of important concert engagements. So they do help to give an important push to your career.
RB: You studied with the distinguished teacher, Arie Vardi, who has produced a long line of leading pianists and who himself won a competition. Vardi is an interesting figure in that he studied with Boulez and Stockhausen. Can you tell us what is like having lessons with him and did you have any opportunities to study avant garde music with him?
BG: I didn’t study that kind of repertoire with him although one of the greatest attributes about him is that his knowledge of repertoire is immense. He always has something interesting to say on all sorts of repertoire ranging from 17th Century works originally written for harpsichord to late 20th Century works. He is always several steps ahead of students when he is teaching a piece and he always finds a unique approach to teaching each of his students. He never forces an interpretation and works with students so that the piece flows naturally from the student. He is very good at identifying strengths and weaknesses and he really helps to build on the strengths and to eradicate the weaknesses. Arie created a very warm and pleasant atmosphere in his classes and it meant that I looked forward to every lesson with him. The wide range of tools and ideas I absorbed from him regarding phrasing, tempi, dynamics, the use of pedal and so on always remain with me and influence the way I approach every new work.
RB: My own piano teacher mentioned that one of his former students had lessons with Vardi and he really helped her to overcome some of the technical difficulties associated with playing Albeniz’ Iberia. Did he help with technique?
BG: He did not teach the basics to technique as all his students were all already very technically proficient so most of the lessons focused on interpretation. However, he did sometimes come up with helpful fingerings and he sometimes drew attention to how to resolve difficulties in unexpected places.
RB: I understand that you have a flair for languages and you enjoy reading a wide range of literature in various languages. How many languages do you speak?
BG: Russian is my first language but I also speak English, Hebrew, German, French and Spanish.
RB: That’s really impressive. I have been very lazy about learning languages as there is an expectation that people around the World will speak English. I would love to be able to read writers such as Pushkin in Russian. I understand it does not translate very well.
BG: I regard Pushkin as on the same level as Shakespeare. Writers like Pushkin and Shakespeare wrote in a way which was beyond the constraints of everyday language and their omnipotence in using language makes it very difficult to translate. Having said that, Pasternak produced some superb translations of Shakespeare and I’m sure there are some good translations of Pushkin into English.
RB: Given your facility with languages and your interests and talents in other areas did you always want to be a pianist, or did you ever consider other alternative careers?
BG: I have always wanted to be a pianist and I could not live if I was not able to play the piano and listen to music. The piano provides the medium through which I am able to play and perform and communicate my thoughts and ideas about music. The other things which I like doing are just hobbies. I do them because I enjoy them, but playing music is of paramount importance to me.
RB: You will shortly be playing a programme of Rachmaninov, Prokofiev and Ravel at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. A lot of this music e.g. Ravel’s La Valse and Rachmaninov’s double note prelude is technically very demanding. What drew you to this repertoire and how have you approached the technical demands?
BG: Prokofiev’s Eighth Sonata and Ravel’s La Valse are reactions to the Second World War and First World War respectively. The Prokofiev sonata is a profound, rich and very powerful work, which in my opinion reflects both on the horrors of the Second World War and on the terror of Stalin’s purges during the 1930’s. Ravel hardly wrote anything during the First World War and La Valse is the first work he wrote after the end of the war. The last third of the piece becomes increasingly dark, frightened and hysterical and it seems to depict the collapse of culture and civilisation in Europe as he knew it. These two works are objective pieces written by composers who were viewing things from the outside and I wanted to contrast that with Rachmaninov’s Op 23 Preludes as these are written from the inside and are more lyrical and full of romantic feeling.
La Valse is the most technically demanding of the works in the recital and it took me almost two years to really get it beneath my fingers. Ravel added a third stave to the score and said that pianists could disregard it if they wish but nowadays you are expected to play all three lines. It also needs to flow effortlessly from the hands and fingers. While these works are undoubtedly difficult, I have to say that I find the vast majority of the repertoire difficult whether you are playing Mozart, Bach, Schumann or Beethoven. On one level Mozart’s music might seem easier but it is very exposed and it is sometimes extremely difficult to achieve the lightness, transparency and simplicity that the music demands. With great pieces of music, you never resent the technical difficulties as you feel they represent the best way of expressing often profound and original musical ideas – i.e. they are serving a higher musical end, rather than being employed for empty virtuosity’s sake.
RB: You gave a wonderful performance of Liszt’s E Flat Piano Concerto at the Proms a few years ago. You had to stand in for Boris Berezovsky at short notice – was it difficult having to do such a large scale event at short notice and how did you find the whole experience?
BG: That whole concert was a joy from start to finish. I remember grinning when I saw all the people in the audience when I walked on to the stage. I didn’t have any stage fright and it was wonderful to hear the silence of over 5,000 people all listening so intently to the music. The reactions and participation of the audience was a really important part of the experience. I really loved playing there.
RB: I remember you gave a wonderfully light and mercurial performance of La Leggierezza as an encore. It was very impressive playing – had you prepared it in advance?
BG: Everything obviously requires some degree of preparation but La Leggierezza is one of my standard encores so it is normally in my fingers.
RB: You have recently released a number of highly critically acclaimed recordings including Prokofiev’s War Sonatas and, more recently, sonatas by Rachmaninov, Liszt and Grieg. I was slightly surprised to see the Grieg Sonata in your more recent recording – what drew you to this work?
BG: My grandmother used to play the Grieg Sonata to me when I was a child so it is one of my earliest musical memories. I remember asking her to play it again and again. I think it is an unjustly underrated work and it seemed to provide a good transition in the recording between the two more heavyweight sonatas.
RB: Did you play the 1913 or 1931 version of the Rachmaninov B Flat minor Sonata and how did you approach the Liszt sonata?
BG I played the 1931 version of the Rachmaninov sonata. I looked at the various versions of the sonata and came to the view that Rachmaninov’s final version was more tightly constructed and had greater unity of line and single-mindedness of purpose. There is a lot of wonderful piano writing in the earlier version but it seemed to detract from the overall structure of the piece. I can see why other pianists take a different view as the first version could be regarded as being much richer precisely due to Rachmaninov’s exploring adjacent ground, rather than following a single path, so my opinion is of course only a matter of taste. I ended up borrowing just one chord from the first version which I thought created a richer sonority.
The Liszt sonata is one of the greatest works written by the composer and one of the greatest romantic works in any medium. In it Liszt succeeded in attaining a perfect balance between the musical and the technical aspects of composition; they are so seamlessly blended as to nearly cease to exist as separate elements, organically complementing each other instead, and creating a flexible, rich and highly expressive musical language. And everything is in the score! As in all other great works of music, you just need to follow it; everything that the composer wanted to say is encapsulated there.
RB: Do you have any future recordings planned?
BG: I have a number of ideas but have no firm plans at the moment.
RB: You have played a number of very demanding concertos including Rachmaninov’s D minor Concerto and you played the Prokofiev Second Piano Concerto after winning the Queen Elizabeth Competition. You certainly do not shy away from playing difficult repertoire!
BG: As I said earlier, I think all repertoire is difficult. I played Mozart’s Concerto K450 in the semi-final and that was in many ways just as difficult as the Rachmaninov. With Mozart, no two concertos are the same in terms of the structure and way in which he develops the material, so you need to adopt a fresh approach with each one.
RB: I think Artur Rubinstein, when asked how much he practised, is reputed to have said that he generally practised 6 hours a day but 8 hours a day if he was playing Mozart. I tend to prefer Mozart’s piano concertos to his solo piano music which I think is a little uneven. I always thought Haydn was more inventive when it comes to the solo piano works.
BG: I agree that Mozart’s best piano writing is in the concertos. For me, there is more head than heart in Haydn’s solo piano music and I prefer to play Beethoven or Schubert.
RB: Which conductors have you enjoyed working with and how do you approach collaborations with orchestras?
BG: In recent years I particularly enjoyed working with Alsop, Sokhiev, Jaervi, Edo de Waart and Fedoseyev. I did a series of concerts with Fedoseyev playing Prokofiev 2 in Germany. Every conductor brings new approaches and new ideas to particular works. It is important to collaborate closely but sometimes conductors challenge the way in which you view a work and this is helpful as it opens your mind to new possibilities and ways of approaching a piece of music. I find the idea of objective musical truth is only valid for a single day or a single performance and it may change the next day. If you have developed a particular rapport with an orchestra and things are going well, it is better to let yourself go on stage and let the flow of the music guide you even if the way in which you are playing something is not consistent with your own preconceived ideas about a work.
RB: Occasionally, you hear a recording and think there is no other way of playing this work. For example, if you listen to Rubinstein playing Chopin, or Arrau playing Liszt or Richter playing Rachmaninov or Prokofiev or Gieseking playing Debussy. But I agree there are always various ways in which you can approach great works of music.
BG: There are multiple ways of approaching great works and if you have the luxury of time, it is often better to come to your own interpretation gradually. Even though you can garner many ideas from recordings, it is sometimes counterproductive to listen to recordings while working on a new piece, precisely because of the fact that the people you mention had a way of winning the audience over and making them think that was the only way of playing a piece. That is the ultimate aim, though – of playing a piece with such conviction and authority that you are able to win over the audience and make them think there is no other possible way of playing this, at least on that night.
RB: Do you enjoy playing chamber music and which repertoire do you like working on?
BG: I particularly enjoy playing lieder. I worked with a singer for a number of years but I have not had a partner for the last four years. I currently play with members of the Israel Philharmonic. Chamber music provides an opportunity for real collaborative music-making that you do not have playing solo repertoire or concertos and it is good not having to memorise the works.
RB: I love listening to lieder – I particularly love the three great song cycles of Schubert.
BG: I have played all three of the song cycles on a forte-piano. Singers seem to like it as it is lighter than a modern concert grand although I must admit I was not entirely convinced of the instrument’s virtues… A forte-piano does not have the same range of colour or richness of tone as a Steinway or Fazioli and a good pianist should be able to keep the tone and textures light enough to accommodate singers.
RB: I completely agree – I much prefer this music on a modern concert grand. Any particularly big engagements coming up that you would like to tell us about?
BG I am playing Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto in the Musikverein on 26 November. It will be quite daunting to play that concerto in that hall in Vienna but I am really looking forward to it!