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Sergey RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Morceaux de fantaisie, Op. 3, No. 2. Prélude in C sharp minor [4:12]
Ten Preludes, Op. 23 (1901/03) [34:39]
Thirteen Preludes, Op. 32 (1910) [40:53]
Boris Giltburg (piano)
rec. 2018, Concert Hall, Wyastone Estate, Monmouth, UK
NAXOS 8.574025 [79:55]

Stravinsky famously said Rachmaninov was “...six feet two inches of Russian gloom.” While there is certainly some truth to that amusing but barbed exaggeration, Rachmaninov’s darker music might better be described as an expression of sadness or loss or yearning than of gloom. At least that’s my impression of it. Yes, there are indeed gloomy works in his output like the popular C sharp minor Prelude, perhaps one of the very pieces that inspired Stravinsky’s comment since it was played to death by pianists in the first half of the 20th century. So, while there is a measure of gloom, there’s more often a feeling of sadness or loss, but cloaked in lush themes and romantic outpourings of great passion. The twenty-four preludes here contain many examples of the composer’s darker music, but we can’t overlook the moments of celebration and elation in some of the pieces either. Here, Boris Giltburg, winner of the 2013 Brussels-based Queen Elisabeth Competition, misses no aspect in these works, capturing every mood, every mood swing, every emotional tic, with imposing technical skills, delivering as fine an account of these difficult works as I’ve ever encountered.

I reviewed Giltburg’s Rachmaninov Third Concerto and Corelli Variations here in 2018 and found the performances excellent. More recently I wrote a notice here of his Liszt Transcendental Études ), released in early 2019. He turned in fine work in those challenging pieces as well. Here, he’s even better. He plays the C sharp minor Prelude in a fairly straightforward but effective way, with sparing use of rubato and avoiding the temptation of adopting too slow a tempo. The first four preludes from the Op. 23 set are played about as well as I’ve heard them: the brooding F sharp minor Prelude is beautifully phrased and paced; the B flat major is ebullient in the outer sections and features very well judged dynamics, the middle section beautifully and passionately rendered; Giltburg perfectly captures both the mystery and grandeur of the D minor, mainly in the subtle manner he adjusts tempos and dynamics; and his account of the lovely D major is simply stunningly phrased, milking the music for all its ravishing beauty.

The well known G minor is robust and lively here, its middle section dreamy and misty, again the performance topnotch. I can find no fault in the performances of the remainder of the pieces in this set. The C minor (No. 7) and A flat major (No. 8), are standouts in particular, as Giltburg handles those tricky running notes in the right hand in both pieces with such elegance, his rubato, dynamics and tempos so subtle and well judged.

His Op. 32 set is just as convincing, from the fleet nervosity of the C major (No. 1) to the grandeur that rises from the doldrums in the final prelude, the D flat major. Giltburg begins this last piece deliberately, the music brooding and seeming to struggle as the pianist builds subtly toward that cathartic moment which unleashes the triumph that rings out gloriously in the latter half. In between these two preludes there’s so much else to enjoy in the way Giltburg interprets the music. Try the ebullient E major (No. 3) for a colorful and brilliant rendering or the lovely G major (No. 5) where the pianist seems to make the gentle main theme float amidst the heavens. Even when Giltburg may strike you as a little quirky in his handling of rhythms, as with the F major (No. 7) or in his use of rubato as in the B major (No. 11), he always make his way work, making you realize he does nothing on a whim but with musical purpose, deftly integrating his method into a well conceived interpretive scheme.

The sound reproduction is vivid and well balanced, the album notes very informative and well written by the pianist himself. The competition in these works is considerable, with just over twenty complete sets currently available. I have several and a number of recordings of one set or the other, as well as many recordings featuring excerpts from either or both and of course a spate having the lone first prelude, the C sharp minor. Ironically, one set which I consider very good and perhaps on the level of Giltburg’s is no longer available, the 1970s effort on EMI by American pianist Augustin Anievas. Another excellent entry comes from the young Russian pianist Dmitri Levkovich on Piano Classics from 2014, but some listeners may find his tempos too brisk: his overall timing of 70:47 (versus Giltburg’s centrist 79:55) is the fastest I know of apart from Sergio Fiorentino’s marginally speedier 69:56. There are also fine sets by Ashkenazy (Decca) and Idil Biret (Naxos), the latter a good choice if you favor very leisurely tempos, but a bad one unless you don’t mind buying more than one disc. At any rate, Giltburg’s set of the 24 preludes is my first choice now and one more fine example of his superior keyboard art.

Robert Cummings

Previous review: Roy Westbrook

Note Since I raised the issue at the outset, let me comment that Rachmaninov’s height, which has been greatly exaggerated over the years, was twice determined to be 6’ 1” (185 cm) when he was measured at Ellis Island, New York Harbor, in 1918 and 1924.

Morceaux de fantaisie, Op. 3, No. 2. Prélude in C sharp minor [4:12]
10 Preludes, Op. 23
No. 1 in F sharp minor: Largo [3:39]
No. 2 in B flat Major: Maestoso [3:36
No. 3 in D minor: Tempo di minuetto [4:17]
No. 4 in D major: Andante cantabile [4:05]
No. 5 in G minor: Alla marcia [3:49]
No. 6 in E flat Major: Andante [2:52]
No. 7 in C minor: Allegro [2:39]
No. 8 in A flat Major: Allegro vivace [3:44]
No. 9 in E flat Minor: Presto [2:10]
No. 10 in G flat Major: Largo [3:23]

13 Préludes, Op. 32
No. 1 in C major: Allegro vivace [1:15]
No. 2 in B flat minor: Allegretto [2:53]
No. 3 in E major: Allegro vivace [2:42]
No. 4 in E minor: Allegro con brio [5:10]
No. 5 in G major: Moderato [3:10]
No. 6 in F minor: Allegro appassionato [1:38]
No. 7 in F major: Moderato [2:09]
No. 8 in A minor: Vivo [1:58]
No. 9 in A major: Allegro moderato [3:05]
No. 10 in B minor: Lento [5:40]
No. 11 in B major: Allegretto [2:10]
No. 12 in G sharp minor: Allegro [2:20]
No. 13 in D flat major: Grave - Allegro [7:09]



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