Prokofiev Piano Sonata no.6 in A major Op.82 (1939-40)
Ravel Valses nobles et sentimentales (1911)
Schumann Carnaval Op.9 (1834-5)
Ravel La valse (1920)
Boris Giltburg (piano, above)
Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 4 October 2021
Written by Ben Hogwood
This review marks your correspondent’s first visit to the Wigmore Hall for 18 months – after weekly coverage of the hall’s wonderful Monday lunchtime series. It was so good to be back! In that time it seems the core audience has changed, dropping by a couple of decades at least. This could be due to understandable caution on the part of the older members of the audience to get back to the post-Coronavirus version of concert life, but it is more likely to be the regular streaming of concerts that has lured in a much younger generation. This concert was streamed (you can watch below) and, for the record, the audience were enthusiastic and immaculately behaved – in fact there was a celebratory atmosphere.
Boris Giltburg fully inhabited the positivity. The pianist was beginning a new, two-year look at the piano music of Ravel, and if this first instalment was anything to go by, we are in for a treat. Giltburg’s first selection concentrated on the waltz in its many forms – with two very different approaches to triple time from Ravel, complemented by Schumann and Prokofiev.
It was with the coruscating tones of the latter’s Piano Sonata no.6 in A major that Giltburg began, something of a shock to unaccustomed ears with its discordant language. This underrated work is first in a trilogy of sonatas written during World War Two. The impact was immediate and confrontational, delivered with impressive force but also control. The serrated edges of the first movement were complemented by a poetic second theme, and the tension relaxed a little further for the second movement’s witty march. The right hand of the piano drew parallels with the Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks from Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition, as the left hand ascended with a probing melody. The slow movement had a softer, yearning heart, though the dissonant harmonies lingered around the edges, before the runaway theme of the finale took hold. This could easily be a silent film soundtrack, but its cat and mouse nature was challenged and ultimately caught by the reappearance of the first movement’s angular melody. Giltburg staged a profound drama between these elements before bringing the sonata to a shattering conclusion.
Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales was next, providing a relatively controlled contrast to the Prokofiev’s unwieldly ways. Giltburg enjoyed the music greatly, swaying to the rhythms as he played. His control was immaculate but the rhythmic profile of the waltzes was instinctive, holding back or pressing forward as appropriate. A tender, intimate second waltz (marked Assez lent – avec une expression intense) brought the audience in closer, while the fourth waltz (Assez animé) twinkled in the night air. Giltburg could be forceful when needed, as in the first (Modéré) and seventh (Moins vif) waltzes, and his Épilogue was exquisitely voiced.
The second half began with Schumann’s Carnaval, a tableau of portraits and personal insights completed in the composer’s mid-twenties. Schumann’s ability to paint vivid pictures at the piano is rightly celebrated, and the sketches here were rich in colour and implied detail. Giltburg relished the extravert Florestan as much as he did the reserved poetry of Eusebius, both sections portraying the personality of Schumann himself. The nagging ‘answer’ motif of Pierrot left its mark, as did the repeated notes of Reconaissance. Meanwhile Papillons quoted from one of Schumann’s first piano pieces with a slightly shy countenance. Schumann’s portraits of Chopin and Paganini were once again fascinating in their insights, while finally the triumphant Marche des Davidsbündler contre les Philistins carried all before it in a triumphant account.
As did Ravel’s La valse, which followed, though here there was a very different outcome. La valse describes the destruction wrought by the First World War, its closing bars collapsing in vivid imagery, but it could just as easily describe elements of our civilization over the last few years. Giltburg seemed to inhabit that possibility, the warm-hearted dance dropping in temperature as his account progressed, until the end when it was rumbling throughout the piano in a self-destructive whirlpool. This is a fiendishly difficult transcription, but Giltburg made it seem effortless as he inhabited each and every twist and turn, hurling out the final pages with formidable power.
After this alarming turn of events we returned to the solace of Giltburg’s first encore, a limpid Intermezzo in A major Op.118/2 by Brahms, then marvelled at the passion in his second choice, Rachmaninov’s Prelude in G# minor Op.32/12. A memorable recital, and an auspicious start to what promises to be a great series. Best experienced in person rather than online though!
You can listen to the repertoire from Boris Giltburg’s concert on this Spotify playlist, which includes the pianist’s recordings of the Prokofiev, Schumann and Rachmaninov:
For more information on Boris Giltburg you can visit his website