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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Complete Preludes
Prelude Op.3 No.2 in C sharp minor [4:15]
Preludes Op.23 Nos.1-10 [ 34:39]
Preludes Op.32 Nos.1-13 [40:46]
Boris Giltburg (piano)
rec. 2018, Concert Hall, Wyastone Estate, UK
NAXOS 8.574025 [79:55]

Naxos formed a relationship with Boris Giltburg in 2015, and it could hardly have been more successful in terms of critical praise and awards (and, one hopes, sales). The Rachmaninov recordings for Naxos, of concertos 2 and 3 and several of the solo works have been especially admired, and here we have another instalment, this time a set of the complete Preludes. As Giltburg himself writes in his excellent booklet note, Rachmaninov’s sets of Preludes are “a mirror and a record of his development as an artist” and this is especially noticeable in the contrast between “the full-blooded romanticism of the first eleven pieces“ (Op.3/2 and Op.23) and the “more angular, muscular and edgy” manner of the thirteen pieces of Op.32 . He notes too their “variety of character, colour, texture and mood” and that “no two preludes are fully alike”. To which I can only add that, notwithstanding that variety, only Rachmaninov could have written any of them, so strong is his compositional personality, especially when writing for his own instrument. (And, some despairing pianists might add “for his own large hands and large technique”.)

The composer himself recorded a number of these pieces, namely numbers 5 and 10 from Op.23, and numbers 3, 5, 6, 7, and 12 from Op.32. Giltburg takes exactly the same time as the composer (2:09) for Op.32/7 and he is even 5 seconds faster (2:26) for Op.32/12. Like almost everyone else he is slower than Rachmaninov in all the others, but often not by much. So my first impression was of an artist who knew the composer’s performances, or at least empathised with the approach taken in them. Giltburg is a keen blogger (, and there you will discover his considerable passion for writing about music and not only piano music, and his interest in recordings of the past – there is a fascinating essay on Gilels, for instance. His aforementioned booklet notes on the music for this issue pick out interesting details about some of them, and they are often reflected in the playing.

Of course Rachmaninov came to hate the very first prelude, Op.3/2 in C sharp minor, and was especially swift in his two recordings (3.36 and 3.41), almost as if eager to get it over with, as he doubtless was when audiences demanded it as an encore. Giltburg’s time of 4:12 is still swifter than most, and an effective one. His rubato in the first section is not as persuasive as others in this piece, and the fast middle part sounds more excitable than exciting maybe – which is itself not invalid. But Van Cliburn’s famous account is still the finest around, one of the few that makes you understand quite what the American audiences heard in this piece.

But it is Op.23 and Op.32 that matter and here one fine performance succeeds another, across both sets. In the opening F sharp minor (Op.23/1), he nicely etches in the moment where the relentless bass line of crotchets and quavers makes it briefly into the light (i.e. the tenor register). Rachmaninov’s piano music is hardly fugal but has plenty of passing polyphony that needs to be heard. Giltburg has the essential skill for these works of being able to unlock those inner lines so that they register, but always in proportion. Thus the D major (Op.23/4, Andante cantabile) is slow to blossom, but contrapuntally rich and full when it does. Again the very next one, the popular Alla Marcia G minor (Op.23/5), has plenty of martial vigour in the outer sections, but the meno mosso middle part is no less eloquent, again thanks to the balancing of different lines. The fluency of swift runs and tricky figuration can almost be taken for granted with Giltburg’s Rachmaninov, but it is often ear-tickling nonetheless, as in both numbers 7 and 8 from Opus 23.

Op.32 has perhaps the greater challenges in terms of interpretation. The fourth one in E minor has an unusual number of metrical switches for Rachmaninov and two big climaxes. After the lento middle part there is a poco a poco accelerando leading back to a presto possible culmination. All this is expertly managed by Giltburg, who makes it all sound of a piece, inevitable, and it must be said, exciting. He does not hold back when keyboard fireworks are indicated. The ensuing G major (Op.32/5) was called by Max Harrison in his splendid book on the composer “the purest expression of lyricism in all Rachmaninov’s piano music” which is a big claim when there is so much to choose from. But Boris Giltburg surely plays it as if it is exactly that, enchanting the listener with a poise and tranquillity that suggests the balmiest summer evenings at Ivanovka, the composer’s country estate where so much of this music was written. In the wonderful B minor (Op.32/10), which Harrison considers the greatest of them all and which was Rachmaninov’s own favourite, there is an especially helpful passage in Giltburg’s note, relating it to a Böcklin painting which is reproduced with the note, (although the picture is small and monochrome). Giltburg seemed to me to open his performance of the piece with a hesitant portentousness that reflects the ambiguous and tense situation in the painting. But whatever the source of the inspiration it is a very fine performance of one of the great five minutes of the piano literature.

This is a tremendous account of the complete Preludes, and on a very fine instrument very well recorded. It can be highly recommended alongside the various other strong versions in the catalogue from Ashkenazy, Berezovsky, Osborne and quite a few others. It might even come to usurp my hitherto favourite account by Rustem Hayroudinoff on Chandos. Hayroudinoff is a little straighter in his approach, whereas Giltburg has several individual touches of rubato, though they are always musical and effective. And the fifteen-year old Chandos is still full price, whereas the Naxos is now one of the current bargains among solo piano discs.

Roy Westbrook



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