United Kingdom Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Ravel: Boris Giltburg (piano), Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 14.11.13 (RB)
Rachmaninov: 10 Preludes Op 23
Prokofiev: Sonata No. 8 Op 84
Ravel: La Valse
Boris Giltburg already has an acclaimed discography and earlier this year lit the blue touch paper by winning the prestigious Queen Elizabeth International Piano Competition. This was an interesting recital programme with the second half consisting of two works which were reactions to the Second and First World Wars respectively. However, in contrast to these works, Giltburg opened the recital with Rachmaninov’s lyrical and expressive Op 23 Preludes.
Giltburg clearly views the Rachmaninov preludes as a collection of atmospheric tone poems. He coaxed gorgeous, rich colours from his Fazioli and used a fair amount of rubato to highlight distinctive musical features and textures. Some of the playing was exceptionally fine particularly in the C minor prelude where he managed to achieve an astonishing degree of lightness and transparency in the whirling figurations while at the same time conveying the heady atmospherics, and in the G flat major where he gave us a rapt and poetically nuanced account of the work. There was some finely graded dynamics in the F sharp minor with Giltburg capturing perfectly the sense of introspective melancholy in the piece and there was perfectly judged layering of sound in the D major. The famous march rhythms of the G minor were arresting and delivered with panache while in the B flat he captured the grand romantic sweep of the piece and sense of grandeur. I was less convinced by the A flat which I thought was little over fastidious, and the E flat minor which was on the slow side and did not have the quicksilver, flyaway qualities I would have liked to see. Overall, much of the playing was very good indeed but I wondered if the collection might at times benefit from a little less rubato and painstaking attention to detail, particularly where it slows or detracts from the overall momentum of the piece.
Giltburg has received rave reviews for his recording of all three Prokofiev War sonatas and, from the performance of Prokofiev’s eighth sonata which opened the second half, I can say that the hype is well and truly justified. The opening movement had a symphonic breadth with Giltburg deploying a wide range on sonorities to evoke striking musical effects. There were eerie, ghostly echoes and dark, menacing shadows in this performance as we were transported to the paranoid world of Stalin’s purges in 1930’s Russia. The diabolical elements seemed to erupt with menace while the coda was a blistering tour de force – a final howl of primal fury in the face of the savagery and barbarism of war. In the slow movement, Giltburg brought out some of the inner voices in the piece while the transformations of the memorable melody were adeptly handled. Although the movement is marked to be played dreamily, there needs to be a sense of unease and disquiet and that mood pervaded this performance. The finale is one of Prokofiev’s motoric, finger-bending works which here received a highly energetic and virtuosic performance. The spiky rhythms and motoric figurations were played with relish with Giltburg making the most of the black humour, diabolism and sardonic invective. This was world class playing that stands comparison with the very greatest Prokofiev interpreters.
The concert concluded with Ravel’s highly virtuosic La Valse, which was the first work the composer wrote after the end of the First World War. The virtuoso demands did not seem to faze Giltburg who played the work with an exceptional degree of technical finish. I liked the way he conveyed the misty opening of the work with the graceful Viennese waltz seemingly emerging out of the chaos. Giltburg took us whirling round the ballroom playing the waltz theme with the utmost grace and elegance while simultaneously creating a range of imaginative and glittering musical effects. In the final section of the work he did an excellent job in heightening the tension and conveying the increasingly dark and hysterical nature of the music before the final collapse of the old World order. This was an excellent performance of one of the great show pieces of the repertoire.
There were three encores: transcriptions of works by Sibelius and Gershwin and Rachmaninov’s A minor etude-tableau based on the story of Little Red Riding Hood which Giltburg played with fleet fingered bravura.