It takes a big pianistic personality to make Rachmaninov’s second concerto sound fresh and different, but Boris Giltburg has that personality – and the ability to go with it.
His playing of it with Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé was arresting from the very first note – the bass played as a kind of clear grace-note to the first chord, with the formula repeated, at varying speed, on almost every subsequent one in that crescendo sequence – which made it all sound quite menacing.
That was followed by an emphatically ponderous way (at first) with the first theme that may have surprised even the accompanying orchestra a little. But that’s the way Boris likes it: deep and soulful in the big themes and dazzlingly brilliant in the helter-skelters. It sounds very Russian (he’s Israeli but born in Moscow) and perhaps a bit flash – but Russian music needs that element, too. Gloomy, beautiful and stunning all at the same time.
The Hallé’s wind principals made some superb contributions in their solos – Sergio Castelló López’ clarinet in particular at this stage, and in the second movement Amy Yule’s flute also: it was here that the tempo flowed much more smoothly and built feeling less hysterically. The orchestral details were beautifully articulated under Sir Mark’s direction, and with the violins, led by Eva Thórarinsdóttir, evoking expression and sustaining the mood to the very end.
The finale was every bit as impactful as the opening, with surging momentum and seriously scary pace by the end. Boris Giltburg (who undertook the assignment of this concert at short notice in place of Alexander Gavrylyuk) has built a big reputation playing Rachmaninov, and this performance showed why. His approach is never routine and presses the expressive power of the music to its limit – something his audience appreciated and loved.
They also surely appreciated the serene equilibrium and rhythmical alertness of Sir Mark’s reading of Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin in its four contrasted movements. The smaller than full string body gave it crispness as well as a rich sound, the oboe (Stéphane Rancourt) and cor anglais (Thomas Davey) solos were eloquent, and there was a lovely burst of deep feeling from the strings in the Menuet reprise, while the final Rigaudon was both bouncy and poised.
Full forces were on parade for Prokoviev’s Symphony no. 7. It’s an ambiguous piece – superficially straightforward and tuneful, but with little touches of foreboding and unease (perhaps the most a good Soviet citizen felt he could say while Stalin was still alive). But the opening has a tinge of Shostakovich’s starkness, and the film-score-ish writing that follows is upended by spiky jollity. Even the ‘circus’ music of the last movement, though fun, comes near to irony, and the solemnity that ensues sounds almost like sarcasm. Sir Mark and his players made the orchestral sound glitter, but were always alert to the sombre tones also in the mix.
Sir Mark Elder