RACHMANINOV Piano Concerto No 3 (Boris Giltburg)
Sometimes the reputation of a piece of music becomes so ensconced that the music itself is enshrouded, infected by hearsay and frozen with preconceived ideas, becoming ossified, monumental, fixed. The piece gradually morphs into a looming feature of the landscape, a challenge to be conquered, so that planting a flag on its summit becomes both a badge of professional honour and an end in itself. The music cools, the molten human expression coursing through it hardens into veins of marble and the work stands, impenetrable, implacably resistant to personal interpretation. To a degree, the Fifth Concerto of Beethoven is such a work, as is perhaps Liszt’s Totentanz. Certainly for decades Rachmaninov’s Third Concerto has been burdened, along with the second concertos of Prokofiev and Bartók, as part of a triumvirate of ‘most difficult’ among canonic 20th-century concertos. Listening to it, we are more prone to be awestruck by the pianist’s technical skill than moved by either the depth of interpretation or a strikingly individual conception.
Boris Giltburg’s new Naxos recording of the D minor Concerto with Carlos Miguel Prieto and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra shatters the encrustation of reputational habit, offering instead a vividly imaginative re creation of a score that lives and breathes with irresistible vitality. Giltburg’s approach is fundamentally lyrical, rhetorically apt and, aided and abetted by Prieto and the Scots, sensitive to every marking in the score.
The first movement unfolds with the simplicity of a folk tale, bringing to mind Rimsky-Korsakov’s fairy-tale operas, where subversion simmers beneath a guileless exterior. It’s a tale of heroism surely, but not a martial one; abundant energy never grows hectic. The famous cadenza, which so easily devolves into a display of stentorian force, here remains expressive, the rich harmonic changes luminously articulated.
A rigorous psychological complexity takes centre stage with the Intermezzo. Exchanges between soloist and orchestra become a dialogue, occasionally argumentative, all sheathed in gossamer, dreamlike poetry. The piano’s peremptory command quells the orchestra’s blandishments in an almost shockingly abrupt transition to the finale. Once launched on this trajectory, there’s no looking back. After a dazzling kaleidoscope of imagery and affects, all described with a microscopic precision, the final peroration arrives in a glorious effusion that is, for once, not anticlimactic, but the inevitable and necessary conclusion to heartfelt human discourse.
Following so much sonic and texural richness, the Corelli Variations at first seem fragile. To Giltburg’s great credit, he is able to retract the lens and draw our attention to the smaller scale of Rachmaninov’s exquisite craftsmanship.
Nevertheless, the concerto remains the centrepiece of this beautifully engineered recording. In place of Cliburn’s sensually beautiful sound or Horowitz’s feline nervous energy, Giltburg gives us thoughtfully conceived rhetoric, with an unerring focus on Rachmaninov’s shrewd harmonic movement rather than a succession of dazzling figuration. Human scale, naturally sculpted phrases and pliant rhythms compellingly invite our reconsideration of this formidable artwork.