This story was originally published by ArtsATL.
The formidable Russian-born Israeli pianist Boris Giltburg, in recital March 12 at Spivey Hall, offered music by two contrasting composers but with one approach to playing: bold, muscular and sharply etched. Dapper in a black suit, white shirt and red necktie, with a white hankie peeking from his breast pocket, Giltburg sounded old school, where it was hard to know if we were in 2023 or, say, 1973.
Playing Spivey’s brilliantly voiced Steinway nicknamed “Robert,” Giltburg was sensationally well suited to Sergei Rachmaninoff’s 13 Preludes, Op. 32, which filled the program after intermission.
Born 150 years ago, the Russian emigre composer-pianist wrote a great many short piano pieces for his own performances. Some are tuneful ditties while others are a profound little drama, almost a mini opera of tragedy and emotion compressed into two or three minutes. Rachmaninoff wrote them as stand-alone pieces, and the 13 were only grouped as a collection when they were published as his Op. 32 in 1911.
Giltburg exploded straight into the first prelude in C Major, marked Allegro vivace, setting the tone for what followed: a lucid approach and dazzling, unruffled super-virtuosity. He’s not a Romantic poet prone to emotional outbursts — as was Rachmaninoff himself at the keyboard — but a steely and sometimes clinical interpreter.
The second prelude, an Allegretto in B-flat minor, starts with a jaunty, hiccupping theme. Giltburg’s taut rhythmic sense made the music sparkle, and then some. He leaned heavily into the agitated middle section of the prelude, elevating it to a fiery peak, perhaps making the music more showy than it deserves. With 10 fingers crashing on the keys at full volume, Giltburg seemed like a mad scientist in an electrical storm, his creation — his loving pride and joy — jolted into life.
And so it went, each prelude a fresh sound world and a new pint-sized Everest to conquer. No. 3, in E Major, features jittery runs up and down the keyboard, with heroic declarations in the middle. He dispatched it with jaw-dropping precision. No. 4, in E minor, includes big, marching chords and a sweetly lyrical section to contrast, all of it persuasively delivered. He highlighted the gentle, watery imagery of No. 5, the whole thing subdued and distant — a total contrast with No. 6, rumbling and violent, ferocious in its non-stop action.
No. 10, marked Lento (slow), was properly nostalgic and reflective, of open spaces and uneven pacing — asking nebulous questions — and leading into urgent passages that demand some answers. But here Giltburg overcooked it. He’d already set such a high dynamic ceiling — lots of triple fortissimos — that to get even louder he resorted to banging the keys.
The penultimate prelude, No. 12 in G-sharp minor, is perhaps the most famous of the set, a showpiece for legendary pianists topped by Vladimir Horowitz. Usually played as a piece of gauzy, gurgling Impressionism, it’s incredibly beautiful and, in the best readings, transporting. But Giltburg doesn’t really do blurry. So he kept No. 12 clean and clear — his own approach and successful on its own terms. (After the Rachmaninoff set, for his first encore, he offered Debussy’s “Clair de lune,” as soft and caressing as it could possibly be played.)
More problematically, Giltburg opened the afternoon with two Beethoven sonatas from 1820-21, the E Major Op. 109, and the A-flat Major Op. 110.
For his recent “Beethoven 32″ project, Giltburg recorded, videotaped and blogged about all 32 piano sonatas, taking a deep dive into what could be seen as an autobiography-in-music, which makes plain the composer-pianist’s musical development and, just as intriguing, some of his most private thoughts and attitudes.
Like other essential works from the composer’s “late” period — think of the Ninth Symphony or the unfathomably complex string quartets, at once spare, dense and mystical — the Opp. 109 and 110 sonatas hold so much content that a performer can approach them from countless angles and can express a multitude of meanings.
Yet Giltburg’s late Beethoven, to my ears, seemed showy and impersonal, concerned more with steel-fingered pianism than with finding personality and perhaps deeper meaning. Throughout these sonatas, he pushed the instrument’s glossy qualities and overused the sustain pedal, which built up a ringing sound in the 400-seat hall to the point of sonic saturation — a choking effect similar to breathing exhaust fumes from a running car in a closed garage.
His Op. 109 was clear and balanced and very high-end — Giltburg is a thoughtful musician and a sensational technician — but he never caught Beethoven’s playfulness or the turbulent changes in mood and affect. In the Op. 110, the composer uses the terms “cantabile” (singing) and “espressivo” but we mostly heard structural integrity, geometric clarity and technical precision, with few signs of Beethoven’s famous wit and his profound soulfulness tinged with melancholy.
Sunday afternoon, he didn’t have much insight into Beethoven beyond the required virtuosity. Or maybe he was playing these sonatas in what we might liken, artistically, to a “mid-century modern” style, of clean lines, appearing a little industrial and feeling a little cold, with a premium on functionality over uniqueness.
Pierre Ruhe was the founding executive director and editor of ArtsATL. He’s been a critic and cultural reporter for the Washington Post, London’s Financial Times and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and was director of artistic planning for the Alabama Symphony Orchestra. He is publications director of Early Music America.
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