Wigmore Mondays – Boris Giltburg plays Rachmaninov Preludes

Boris Giltburg (piano, below)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 30 September 2019 (lunchtime)

You can listen to this concert on the BBC Sounds app here

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood

When Bach finished the first set of his celebrated Well-Tempered Clavier in 1722, he set in motion an approach to writing for the keyboard that has captured the imagination of several other composers through the centuries, writing a prelude and / or a fugue in each of the 24 keys and having them performed as a collection.

Sergei Rachmaninov was one of those composers so influenced, though he didn’t approach it as a collection initially. In fact he began with just one piece, the Prelude in C sharp minor, which sat in the middle of the 5 Morçeaux de Fantaisie for piano when published in 1892. With the composer still in his late teens, this Prelude shot him to stardom – and so he was only too happy to revisit the form with another 23 pieces, delivered in two installments in the years 1903 and 1910.

The prelude became one of Rachmaninov’s primary methods of expression in his solo piano music, and the pieces are much loved. Boris Giltburg’s selection here did not however include the two most famous examples – the C sharp minor piece, nor the famous G minor prelude from the Op.23 set, Boris Giltburg preferring instead to show that the other 22 are absolutely not to be overlooked! From these he picked a selection of 14, arranged chronologically but also logically in their key groups.

Rachmaninov’s writing for piano is almost instantly recognisable, and only a few seconds of the Prelude in B flat major Op.23/2 (1:27) are needed to confirm his authorship. The ready and natural flow of notes, the power of the right hand, working in octaves on this occasion, and an outpouring of passion. Giltburg kept a fine measure of expression and control.

He complemented this heady start with the soft yet ardent Prelude in D major Op.23/4, and then another stream of consciousness from the Prelude in C minor Op.23/7, carrying all before it to an emphatic end. Giltburg’s phrasing was ideal here, knowing when to ‘breathe’ in the longer phrases.

The Prelude in A flat major Op.23/8 shows something of the influence of Chopin, and this one too flowed nicely under Giltburg’s direction. Shifting the base to the Prelude in E flat minor Op.23/9 brought a more worrisome outlook, the right hand more agitated and becoming relatively sombre in its closing statement. The last of this set, the Prelude in G flat major Op.23/10, negotiated calmer waters, Giltburg lost in thought and the music.

The Op.32 selection begins in the ‘purest’ key, C major, so named as all its notes are the white keys on the piano – yet from Rachmaninov this is his shortest prelude, powered here by Giltburg’s weighty left hand opening. It formed a nice gateway to the Prelude in B flat minor Op.32/2, from which we were led to the heroic Prelude in E minor, the fourth in the set. This was brilliantly characterised and paced by Giltburg, a darkly dramatic performance.

The serenity of the Prelude in G major Op.23/5 was beautifully observed, as was the stark contrast to the following Prelude in F minor Op.32/6, which erupted out of the blocks. Most impressive of all, perhaps, was the substantial Prelude in B minor Op.32/10, a response to Arnold Böcklin’s painting Die Heimkehr (The Homecoming, above), a piece of genuine, bittersweet emotion, especially at the end where Rachmaninov struggles to choose between the minor and the major key.

After this the penultimate Prelude in G sharp minor Op.32/12 had a touch of the Mediterranean in its tremolo passages, and here Giltburg again gave the music plenty of room to breathe, his virtuosity extremely impressive. The final, substantial Prelude in D flat major Op.32/13 had a keen sense of homecoming, given a regal air in this performance.

Repertoire

Boris Giltburg played the following Rachmaninov Preludes (with timings on the BBC Sounds broadcast in brackets):

Rachmaninov
10 Preludes Op.23 (1902-03) – excerpts: in B flat Op.23/2 (1:27); in D Op 23/4 (5:09); in C minor Op 23/7 (9:27); in A flat Op 23/8 (12:04); in E flat minor Op 23/9 (15:56); in G flat Op 23/10 (18:15)
13 Preludes Op.32 (1910) – excerpts: in C Op 32/1 (23:05); in B flat minor Op 32/2 (24:34); in E minor Op 32/4 (27:31); in G Op 32/5 (33:03); in F minor Op 32/6 (36:18); in B minor Op 32/10 (37:50); in G sharp minor Op 32/12 (43:17); in D flat Op 32/13 (45:48)

He also played Schumann’s Arabeske in C major Op.18 (52:00) as an encore:

Further listening

All the preludes in this concert can be heard on this playlist in the order they were performed, using Giltburg’s own recently issued recording:

Giltburg proclaims Rachmaninov to be a favourite composer, and his recent recording of the composer’s Piano Concerto no.3 gives the listener little doubt in that respect! It’s coupled with the solo Variations on a Theme of Corelli:

Meanwhile this earlier release for Naxos gives a welcome coupling for the second set of Rachmaninov’s Études-Tableaux Op.39 – one of his best achievements for solo piano – and the impressive 6 Moments musicaux Op.16, which between them last around half an hour and contain some deeply expressive music:

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