A Conversation with Boris Giltburg

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Boris Giltburg has, at the piano, undertaken challenges perhaps matched only by the physical endeavors he has faced in the great outdoors.

Indeed, soon after finishing a recital in Santiago, Chile, in late 2018, the Russian-born Israeli pianist boarded a flight to the wind-swept region of southern Patagonia, where he hiked amid 8,000-foot peaks and set foot on barren islands populated mainly by penguins and seals. The break from the keyboard allowed him to devote a few days to photography, a favorite hobby. “Incredible, immense, very often breathtaking landscapes,” he reported on Twitter. “And more wildlife than I’ve probably seen in my entire life. Really strong experience.”

Giltburg says he enjoys pushing himself physically, and “immense” is a word that could easily apply to several works in his growing discography. It includes Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes, Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze, Rachmaninov’s Second and Third Piano Concertos and Études-tableaux, and several Beethoven sonatas.

Giltburg’s latest Naxos release focuses on Rachmaninov’s Préludes, the cycle of 24 piano pieces which Giltburg says represent “fully developed, standalone small worlds.” In a phone conversation from his home in Amsterdam, the affable pianist talks about Rachmaninov’s brilliantly-constructed cycle, and about some of his own creative projects off the concert stage.

Your new recording of the 24 Préludes is your fourth Naxos recording devoted to Rachmaninov. What is it about the composer that keeps drawing you back?

I'm often asked who my favorite composer is and I usually try to politely evade the question. But if I am pressed, then the final answer — at least as of today — is Rachmaninov. Because there's so much in his music that speaks both to the heart, to the soul, to the brain and the intellect. With his harmonic language, his melodies, his bursts of fiery energy and, at the same time, his sense of beauty, everything is so sincere and heartfelt and very honest.

How did his writing for the piano stem from his own considerable virtuosity as a performer?

His writing is so exquisitely pianistic. He had an understanding of what could be achieved on the piano, but also an imagination to push it a lot further. So the left hand, for example, is often independent. If you play the left-hand parts on their own they have several voices inside just the left hand, like a melody and a micro-accompaniment. Often, he invents some kind of passagework which leaves you gasping with wonder. It creates this magnificent effect and you think, ‘Wow, how does someone imagine such a thing is possible?’

Arnold Böcklin’s  The Return , which inspired Rachmaninov’s B minor Prélude, Op. 32, No. 10.

Arnold Böcklin’s The Return, which inspired Rachmaninov’s B minor Prélude, Op. 32, No. 10.

In your liner notes you discuss how certain Préludes call to mind literature or paintings. You write that Op. 23, No. 3 suggests a dark Russian folk tale. Op. 32, No. 4 evokes an old Russian poem — or even The Lord of the Rings. How did you arrive at these images?

Of course, these are all personal images. I find it quite telling that the only one where we have some indication from Rachmaninov is the B minor Prelude, which he said was inspired by the painting, “The Return”.

That’s the "The Return," an enigmatic painting by Swiss symbolist Arnold Böcklin, which Rachmaninov said inspired the Prelude in B minor, Op. 32, No. 10. His music seems to be a highly personal response to the painting.

The gap between the music and the painting at first sight is so huge that it immediately gets your imagination going: How do the two connect? How does this become an interpretation of that? But that's one of the things about him. There's often a very strong sense of a story being told but we don't know what Rachmaninov had in mind exactly. On balance, maybe this is a good thing because it leaves many more possibilities open.

Speaking of music and images, you’re a hobbyist photographer and have quite a striking collection of pictures on your personal blog and Instagram account. Do you find parallels between piano performance and photography?

It’s interesting because when I work on music, I have a much clearer idea of how I would like the end result to sound and then I try to work towards it. In photography it's completely the other way around. When I go for a walk and take a camera with me, I have no idea what kind of photos, if any, I will get.

When I play, rather than constructing an image, it's more a construction of a sound-space: the balance of the voices, the distance between the top and the bottom voice, and how every note is positioned in this space. It sounds very planned, but the feeling during a good concert is like sculpting in real time. You have this flow of sound and you shape it as it happens.

You took some striking black-and-white shots this past winter in the Czech Republic. Another set of photos portrays a Tokyo fish market before dawn.

This combination of light and dark is something that I like very much. Sometimes, unless there's a concert, the evening is the only time of day that I have to go out and take photos. Tokyo was an extreme example because I woke up at about 3:00 am! That doesn't usually happen. But I started seeing a lot more of the places where I travel once I started doing photography. Because this is my hobby rather than my profession, if on a certain day there's nothing great, then there's nothing great. Nobody's expecting anything.

You’ve also made some short performance films with Stewart French, a documentary filmmaker. These are all-night sessions made in a darkened piano showroom, using a hand-held camera, no editing and atmospheric lighting. What do you enjoy about this setup?

My natural disposition means that I'm a night owl, so I function better at night. We start at 10:00 pm and finish around 5:00 am. The darkness allows Stewart to create this really interesting lighting. I enjoy having just one or two bright lights on the keyboard. It's interesting because, with an audience it's easier because you have a rush of adrenaline. At night in the piano showroom, you don't have this so it's about trying to get into the zone.

You were born in Moscow but moved to Israel at a young age. Do you find that you particularly identify with music of your heritage?

Very much. When I was growing up we spoke Russian at home. I grew up on Russian literature and Russian poetry. Because I left the country when I was five years old, I didn't have any strong connections to the place itself yet. My connection to Russia is first and foremost through the words and the sounds. And it's not just Rachmaninov. I have a strong love of Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky, but also Scriabin, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. I'm a huge fan of Shostakovich, not just as a composer but as a person. I've read all that I can find about him. I find his life utterly fascinating and I even made two arrangements of his string quartets for piano.

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You’ve been on hiking trips through Chile’s Patagonia, England’s Peak District and Italy’s Gran Paradiso National park. Do you find any parallels between scaling a mountain and say, tackling a score by Rachmaninov or Liszt?

Nobody asked me that before [laughs]. I also swim and I definitely enjoy, without being any kind of athlete, pushing it a little bit. In general I enjoy big challenges, and with the Beethoven 250th anniversary year coming up, I will be recording all of his concerti for Naxos [with the Liverpool Philharmonic, conducted by Vassily Petrenko].

I also decided to take up a personal project of learning all of the Beethoven sonatas, which I haven’t all played yet. We'll be filming all 32 sonatas starting this year and we’ll start to release them on January 1, 2020 and then throughout the year. In the few weeks since I decided to do this I've been playing a lot of Beethoven and it's like discovering a chest full of treasures.

- Written by Brian Wise

Brian Wise writes about classical music for BBC Music Magazine, Musical America, and is the producer of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s national radio broadcasts.

Listen To these Award-Winning Recordings from Boris Giltburg!