Two earlier discs by Boris Giltburg got slightly lukewarm reviews in Fanfare . Reviewing a recital back in 2006, Colin Clarke concluded that, despite the pianist’s “tonal resources,” Mussorgsky’s Pictures just didn’t “all add up,” while his Prokofiev Eighth, intelligent as it was, needed to be more diabolic in the finale (30:2). Reviewing a more recent disc of Prokofiev’s three so-called “War Sonatas” (including a reprise of the Eighth), Raymond Beegle was even more neutral: “Boris Giltburg has many of the qualities of his predecessors, but gives us no particular virtue that stands above them” (36:4). This new disc offers repertoire of similar grandeur—but I hear playing of a distinctly higher order.
Giltburg is, without a doubt, a hard-hitting pianist with an old-fashioned, heart-on-the-sleeve Romantic temperament. Although he’s capable of caressing the instrument (he miraculously captures the distilled beauty of the chordal section that begins seven bars from the end of the second movement of the Grieg), you’re more likely to be struck by his bass-centered tone and his huge sonority (try, for instance, the weighty left-hand octaves toward the end of the Grieg’s first movement or the first appearance of the Grandioso theme of the Liszt) and by his emphatic persona (he’s certainly not a pianist to tear through Liszt’s fugue). And while he’s capable of reflective simplicity (he’s especially sensitive to Rachmaninoff’s aching regret), you’re more likely to be struck by the moments of extreme passion. His tempos tend to be on the slow side of the spectrum, and he’s always ready to knead them in a way that increases our sense of anticipation. As a result, the climaxes always explode with a tremendous sense of arrival. Textures can be slightly thick (certainly, he seems to have little sympathy for the neoclassical side of Rachmaninoff’s aesthetic), but his tonal bear-hug is sufficiently compelling that, as you’re listening, you’re unlikely to complain.
To some, I suppose, his approach might seem too high-pressure or overwrought—especially if you listen to all three of these sonatas in a single sitting. Still, Giltburg is a player with a strong and compelling personality; and while none of these performances trumps the very considerable competition (although it’s pretty near the top in the Grieg), pianophiles who decide to supplement their favorites with these new recordings will find themselves well rewarded. The sound is good, and the pianist provides exceptionally lucid and informative notes, which include a compelling case for the revised version of the Rachmaninoff. (FANFARE / Peter J. Rabinowitz)