RACHMANINOV Etudes-tableaux. Moments musicaux
Boris Giltburg, the Russian-born Israeli pianist who won the 2013 Queen Elisabeth Competition, is that genuine rarity: a pianist whose Rachmaninov is entirely idiomatic yet intensely personal in a way that yields fresh perspectives on this well traversed repertory.
Having many of the varied qualifications that make a great Rachmaninov player certainly helps. To begin with, Giltburg’s sense of rhythm is impeccable, with a chaste application of rubato that is organically derived from the life of the phrase. He is a master of the great surges and retractions of energy so specific to the composer. Giltburg’s pellucid sound is never forced; his large dynamic range has a soft spectrum, between mezzo-piano and ppp, which is infinitely calibrated and shaded. Clarity is everywhere paramount. Dense chordal passages maintain beautifully balanced voicing even at breakneck speed. His cantabile espressivo is that of a cultivated singer and his presto leggiero positively dazzles. Giltburg’s probing imagination unlocks within each of these small forms an individual microcosm with its own unique narrative. Rachmaninov’s affective range, which in lesser hands can seem limited, here unfurls with the natural, unaffected pride of a peacock display. If cliché and sentimentality are anathema to Giltburg, one never doubts that he speaks from the heart. His eloquence derives from a poise and restraint that, while uniquely his own, is not unlike the aristocratic delivery that was the hallmark of Rachmaninov’s playing.
The thoughtfully conceived programme looks back over two decades, from the ripe Silver-Age Symbolist/Impressionism of the second set of Etudes-tableaux, completed before Rachmaninov’s departure from Russia, to the six Moments musicaux of 1896.
The Etudes-tableaux in particular call to mind the old adage that, among musicians, the best techniques are those that draw least attention. The stillness from which conflict emerges and subsides in Op 39 No 2 is a quiet pool evoking some ideal, ethereal calm. The bright colours and delicate tinkling bells that embellish the folk tale of No 4 are crafted with a precision recalling Fabergé. The vast topography and heroic breadth of the mighty E flat minor, No 5, are achieved without brutality or overplaying. Even Giltburg’s most driven readings, such as the harrowing flight from the furies of No 6, are tempered with vivid contrasts that heighten their character. The molten volatility, for instance, of No 1, is simultaneously a study in shape and contour, whereas the ultimate purpose of the mercurial, swirling turbulence of No 3 is withheld until the final, desolate bars.
A visit to the younger composer in the Moments musicaux is equally rewarding. Structurally more song-like and improvisatory than the narratives woven by the Etudes, they pose subtler interpretative problems, no doubt the reason why relatively few pianists have recorded the full set. Giltburg brings a decisive integration and cohesion to these ‘miniatures’, the longest of which, admittedly, stretches to seven and a half minutes.
What makes this so special? As remote as Imperial Russia under the Romanovs seems to us today, Rachmaninov himself is relatively near. Think of the excellent recordings of his playing and conducting, the film footage and photographs, and the vast archival collections in Moscow, Washington and Switzerland. If few people alive today actually heard him play, the living tradition surrounding Rachmaninov, now 73 years after his death, is surely as rich as that of any comparable contemporary.
It may be, however, that the cumulative weight of this multivalent living tradition mitigates a truly fresh take on music so familiar that it can be said to have entered the vernacular. Listening to Rachmaninov’s contemporaries – Hofmann, for instance, or Moiseiwitsch, Rubinstein or Horowitz – play his music, one can’t help but be struck by their variety of stylistic approaches. Today, when the majority of professional pianists include some Rachmaninov in their repertoires, the interpretations seem to have shrunk to a median of predictable responses.
This, it seems to me, is what makes Giltburg’s readings so refreshing. Without ostentation or fuss, he has examined these scores in every kind of light, lived with them and come up with a vision that, without being wilfully contrarian, is nevertheless something beyond received wisdom. I suspect that before long this vision will place him among the truly memorable Rachmaninov interpreters, an elect including Moiseiwitsch, Horowitz, Kappel, Richter and Cliburn. His originality stems from a convergence of heart and mind, served by immaculate technique and motivated by a deep and abiding love for one of the 20th century’s greatest composer-pianists.