Zeist, 21 August 2014
At first, Boris Giltburg wasn't sure whether he had time for an interview when I approached him with this question. "Give me your email address though, I'll let you know" and thankfully I received a message the next day. He had taken a look at my site and was impressed that I had interviewed one of his idols, Grigory Sokolov "who seldom gives any". Maybe that was what won him over? I was glad that this talented artist had time to speak to me, between rehearsals of the Dvorak Piano Quintet with the Pavel Haas Quartet. It was a joy to speak to such an articulate young pianist, who knows so well what he wants to achieve..
Willem Boone (WB): I heard you in concert a few times and you always look so beaming on stage, as if it is really the place where you want to be. Is it indeed?
Boris Giltburg (BG): Absolutely, especially when they open the doors and you see the first glimpse of the audience. Of course there is tension before the concert, but when you sit in front of the piano, stage is the best place to be, backstage is much worse! Once you are “on”, something kicks in the brain.
WB: You said on your web log that you wish to convert people to classical music, how successful have you been so far?
BG: I tried with some of my friends. People have preconceptions about classical music; they think it is boring, elitist or inaccessible. I can only agree about it being inaccessible; with some music you need guidance in order to understand what is going on. This is, for instance, the case with compositions such as Mahler Symphonies. In fact, there is no equivalent of such pieces in pop music that last for so long and it may be difficult to listen to it without doing anything else. As a listener or as a “newbee” you may get a sense of being lost, however, if you give them signposts, classical music may provoke their interest. It may become an intellectual challenge.
I write my web log for non-musicians, trying to give inside information about what we hear when we listen to classical music, but of course as a musician, I cannot “unlearn” knowledge.
WB: When were you converted to classical music?
BG: I don’t remember exactly, but I started playing the piano at the age of five. My parents told me that I watched a TV broadcast of Emil Gilels and I told them I wanted to have a piano and a chair like him! I also remember I liked Yiddish songs when I was about three or four years old.
WB: Five is a very young age to start with lessons!
BG: I insisted! My mother said we had enough pianists in the family (both she and my grandmother play the piano), but I was too stubborn to listen.
WB: Do you think classical music can make people better people?
BG (thinks): I remember a friend of mine who told me about a rock concert she had been to and she thought of the experience as a catharsis. That is what can happen with classical music too: it has the strength to transport people somewhere else. It is an achievement of the highest human spirit, so yes, you definitely gain something of working with such material and also of listening to it. Of course, it depends on what you are listening to, classical music covers a period of 400 years, there is so much!
WB: Last year, you won first prize in the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels, this is maybe a stupid question but did you expect to win?
BG: After such an intensive period, I got to a point where I stopped thinking! I was scared and nervous and after a month, I would have been happy with any outcome.. I went through so much adrenalin, there was an inability to think so to speak.
WB: My next question may be cheeky: in the semi-finals while playing Mozart’s Concerto K 450, you had a short memory lapse in the last movement. You recovered really well from that, but I couldn’t stop thinking: is this the ultimate nightmare in such an important competition with so many people in the audience?
BG: It was hard to think of something much worse at that moment. I discussed this so much, people ask me about it in almost any interview, but yes, these seconds seemed like endless and made me want to crawl away and disappear.. However, I made myself listen to the recording again and I found out what happened. There is a passage that goes up, and in the recapitulation it goes up and down. I thought while playing: “I cannot go up this high, because it was impossible on Mozart’s piano” and then it happened.
WB: Did you feel you were “dead” at that moment?
BG: Yes, with 100% certainty. But I also thought I had nothing to lose anymore and wanted to finish with as much dignity as I could. You know, I am a hopeless optimist, therefore, I thought that there might be a slight chance if I played really well. Actually, I played better after that moment!
WB: Did you hear right away you were through to the finals?
BG: No, I had to wait two hours, which was terrible.
WB: What happens in the jury: do you get to see their “verdict”, do they report back to you about your last performance?
BG: No, they just vote, there is no discussion. That is one of the two great things about this competition, the other being that no students of jury members are allowed.
WB: And then you played Rachmaninov Third Concerto in the finals, which was a phenomenal performance. Can we say that Mozart is more “difficult” than Rachmaninov, since the former’s music can show the slightest mistake more clearly than a “notey” concerto as Rach 3rd?
BG: Certainly, Mozart is more difficult than Rachmaninov! His music is transparent and crystal clear, everything has to be natural. For me, Rachmaninov is much easier to understand. Technically his pianism is easier than Mozart’s or Beethoven’s. Mozart can be finger breaking! Mozart wrote mainly for himself, so there was no point of making things less difficult for others!
WB: Speaking of Rach 3rd, how difficult is it really? I thought it was one of the most difficult concertos of the entire repertoire, but several of my interviewees (Leif Ove Andsnes, Jevgeny Sudbin) said it was very pianistic and actually quite comfortable to play?
BG: I would say neither, like every great work, Rach 3rd is full of technical challenges, but they serve the music and you care much less about the technique. First of all, it is a tremendous creation of art and its emotional spectrum is enormous. I would say that the first two pages are the most challenging of all, whereas they might seem the easiest..
WB: A lot of colleagues of yours who previously won this competition did so with either this concerto or the Second Concerto by Prokofiev. What was your reason to play Rach 3rd in the finals?
BG: I played Prokofiev Second in the closing concert, I performed it for the first time only two months before and it would have been too risky to play it in the finals. Both concertos are large scale compositions that offer the optimal combination of virtuosity and depth, they are also a test case for a successful collaboration with an orchestra and a conductor. For me either of these two concertos is less risky than Beethoven Fourth or Brahms Second. And, last but not least, Russian music is very close to me!
WB: I have been very impressed with your recording of Prokofiev’s War Sonatas. I hear you play number 8 live, last year in Arnhem, The Netherlands. Whilst you didn’t lack any power, I liked the way you played it, you made me discover new layers and you didn’t only emphasize the violence or aggressiveness of his music. Is that how you conceive Prokofiev’s music?
BG: This sonata is a typical example of a composer who was on the pinnacle of his art, I feel the same about Liszt and the B-minor sonata or Moussorgsky and the Pictures. I love the Sixth and Seventh Sonatas too, but number eight is a balance between putting you on the battle field and filming from far way. Prokofiev resembles a talented movie camera man in this sonata. The first movement is very special; it starts in a calm, almost cold and poisonous way and out of these lines grow other motives. Both the exposition and the recapitulation are slow, only in the middle part you have to bang the hell out of the piano, well..no, you shouldn’t bang, but you have to be as aggressive and relentless as possible!
WB: Would you ever consider playing numbers 6,7 and 8 in one recital? I remember Ashkenazy, who plays all three of them, called it hell to do them in one concert..
BG: I offered to play them in one recital, but nobody accepted such a programme. All agents told me it wouldn’t “sell”. In a way, all three sonatas are finisher pieces. The bad thing is if you put any of them in another position, it becomes much more difficult to listen to, as with the Liszt-Sonata before the intermission. Number six could be an opener, seven much less so.
WB: As to number seven, I have a question about the last movement, the Precipitato. What exactly does it mean?
BG: literally it means “hastening”
WB: I thought it had to gradually gain speed, but some pianists start off so fast that you cannot go any faster!
BG: No, it’s against the nature of the music to play gradually faster, it was written as a perpetuum mobile.
WB: I listened to your recording today, you play it at breakneck speed!
BG: I wouldn’t do it as fast in concert, I probably wouldn’t play it as fast anyway as on my recording…
WB: You just mentioned the Liszt Sonata, where I noticed something similar as with your Prokofiev recording…
BG: It is his most profound and best piano work!
WB: Rachmaninov once said every composition or movement has a culmination point, what would be the culmination point in the Liszt Sonata for you?
BG: There are several: in the middle you have the feeling of being on top of a mountain while looking at a huge horizon, just before the middle section there is a dramatic climax and the octave part at the very end, where Liszt shows his exuberance..
WB: And what about these descending pianissimo scales just before the fugue?
BG: Yes, that is another incredible place, if you play these well, there is total silence in the hall.., however, with a sonata that lasts 32 minutes, you cannot mention one highlight! Neither can you in Rach Third: what would be the culmination point in the first movement? (enthuses), it’s such an amazing piece, that we have all this music is amazing!
WB: Two days ago, you played the Shostakovitsj Piano Quintet with the Borodin Quartet. It seemed a bit of an odd piece to me, the piano is almost part of the string quartet, unlike the Dvorak Piano Quintet you will be playing tonight. How do you feel about the Shostakovitsj Quintet?
BG: I must say I didn’t like it before I played it, I also thought it a “weird” piece as you said, but the more I play it, the more I liked it. Each movement has a distinct character: the Prelude almost sounds like a gothic cathedral with pillars, then it becomes post-apocalyptic, there is anger and in the recapitulation there is pity. The scherzo is biting, ironic. The fourth movement starts with bright sadness and the ending is a mixture of pain, sadness and hopelessness, that become slightly brighter in the last movement. I wouldn’t call it optimistic, but there is some hope. It has a “bad ending”, as opposed to the Dvorak Quintet, it ends in a quiet way and nobody shouts “bravo” after the last chord.. This Quintet was a success at the time, it showed that people needed hope more than anything else.
WB: We emailed before the interview and you told me that Sokolov is one of your heroes. What makes him so special for you?
BG: His palette of colours and his complete mastery at the keyboard. The way he can play two notes at the same time and yet give them their own character. There is nobody like him among the living pianists.. His recording of the Art of the Fugue is completely not in style, but it is so captivatingly done!
WB: I listened to Gilels today and I think he was extraordinary too, his pianissimo was unique!
BG: Yes, you are right, he is another one of my heroes. He showed human vulnerability, like Oistrakh. It makes them closer to you.
WB: On your web log you wrote something that intrigues me: you wrote an essay about the oboe. Is that because this instrument expresses emotions in a different way than the piano?
BG: No, not at all, I want to write about all instruments, but the problem is that it takes very long!
WB: You are not like the French pianist Yvonne Lefébure who once said during a master class that she didn’t want to hear the piano, but other instruments like the cello, the flute and the oboe?
BG: No, that’s very bad! Well, let me put it this way: if you are thinking, while seated at the piano of orchestral colours, it’s “good”, but it would be bad to imitate other instruments on the piano! During master classes, I advise students to change the colour(s) or the balance of voices, however you always need to do that in pianistic terms!
WB: A lot of pianists try to imitate the human voice, is that “ bad” too?
BG: That’s different. On paper, piano is the least singing instrument. (He asks me whether I know what the most singing instrument is and much to my amazement, it turns out to be the organ!). We pianists try to imitate the singers’ melodic sensibility. What we can learn from singers, is to take time and stretch the intervals.
WB: Can you also learn from their phrasing?
BG: That’s what I meant by “learning from their melodic sensibility”.
WB: A last question, are you superstitious?
BG: No, I lost all of it!
WB: So I can wish you good luck for the Dvorak?
BG: Yes, you can, but if you say: “Break a leg”, I’ll say: “Go to hell !”