Giltburg and Gelders Orkest lend substance to Rachmaninov staples

NetherlandsNetherlands Rachmaninov: Nikolai Alexeev (conductor), Boris Giltburg (piano), Het Gelders Orkest. Concertgebouw de Vereeniging, Nijmegen. 19.2.2016. (SS)

Rachmaninov, Piano Concerto no. 2, op. 18; Symphony no. 2, op. 27

Nijmegen’s proximity to Germany’s industrial heartland led to the unintended obliteration of its historical center by American bombers in 1944, but its concert hall appears to be one of the civic buildings that escaped unscathed. In an English town of the same size one might attend concerts in a Victorian town hall, but the imposing Concertgebouw de Vereeniging, which turned 100 last year, is a full concert hall in its own right, with capacity not so far behind Vienna’s Musikverein (the entrance to the auditorium even evokes Vienna, with two gilded caryatids watching over the door). The interior has been handsomely renovated, the acoustic is good, and looking at this month’s program, the venue seems an established stop on the international artist circuit for both solo concerts and concerto engagements. This concert offered up the latter in the form of Boris Giltburg, a pianist I’ve been curious to hear, playing with the Gelders Orkest, which serves several towns in this eastern Dutch region and is known in English as the Arnhem Philharmonic.

Giltburg’s account of Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto had a technical facility yoked to depth which brought to mind his contemporaries Igor Levit and Daniil Trifonov. At the same time his style is distinctly different: fewer passages dramatized as statements, and in place of thought-provoking rhetoric, potent scenic associations. The first movement in particular was like journeying through a landscape, with the wide vistas evoked in Rachmaninov piano preludes like op. 32 no. 12 never seeming far away. Overall, the impression was of a highly individual reading which made the piece seemed fresh but without idiosyncrasy, thus handily avoiding one of the worst offences in classical music’s museum age (giving an utterly redundant performance of an overplayed warhorse). The last few years have been a good time for discovering emerging piano heavyweights, and this performance set up real anticipation for the prospect of following Giltburg’s career.

The orchestra didn’t quite find its footing in the concerto; ensemble was together but slightly baggy and not always well balanced. The playing then got kicked up a couple of gears for the second Rachmaninov symphony, which received a splendid performance. The treat for the ears extended beyond heightened discipline to a big cushion of strings and sensitive wind solos, while Nikolai Alexeev’s conducting brought everything together with a nourishing sense of rightness. The first movement moved forward with an oceanic sweep and the Adagio’s unconstrained lyricism neither sounded repressed nor like pappy film music; there was an abundance of loveliness here but an absence of sentimentality. Alexeev also executed the build-up to the ardent C major climax with a masterful upsurge, and paid good heed in the finale – high-spirited but no runaway horse – to the consolidation of what had come before. Compared to Giltburg’s contribution this was a bit more meat-and-potatoes Rachmaninov, more score-focused realization than interpretation, but still, a compelling realization.

Seb Smallshaw

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