The thirty-fifth interview in my Classical Conversations Series features Israeli concert pianist Boris Giltburg, and we met at Jaques Samuel Pianos in London earlier this week to chat about his life and career.
Israeli pianist Boris Giltburg was born in 1984 in Moscow and has lived in Tel Aviv since early childhood. He began his piano studies with his mother at the age of five and went on to study with Arie Vardi. He has received many awards for international competitions, notably at Santander (top prize and Audience Prize, 2002) and the Rubinstein (2nd prize and Best Classical Concerto, 2011). In 2013 he received First Prize at the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels, as a result of which his already flourishing international career has been catapulted to a new level, with a packed diary of additional concert engagements across the globe. In the same year he was nominated for a Classic Brit (Critics’ Award).
Since his breakthrough appearance with the Philharmonia in 2007, Giltburg has been an annual visitor to the Royal Festival Hall in London, and made his BBC Proms debut in 2010 with the BBC Scottish Symphony. Last season he made his first concerto appearance in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, with the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, and gave his London Philharmonic debut. He is a popular guest with many UK orchestras and has also appeared with DSO Berlin, Frankfurt Radio Symphony, Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse, Royal Flemish Philharmonic, Swedish Radio Symphony, Danish Radio Symphony, Prague Symphony, to name a few. In autumn 2013 he played for the first time at the Vienna Musikverein and debuted with the St Petersburg Philharmonic.
Giltburg made his debut with the Israel Philharmonic in February 2005, and regularly appears with all the major orchestras and in the leading recital series in Israel, as well as playing chamber music with members of the Israel Philharmonic. Having toured the USA as a teenager with the Israel Chamber, he made his North American orchestra debut in 2007 with the Indianapolis Symphony. In January 2014 he appeared with the Seattle Symphony, and in 2015 with the Baltimore Symphony. He made his Tokyo debut in 2005, toured China for the first time in 2007, returning to give a recital at the NCPA in Beijing last season, and he played with the Hong Kong Philharmonic in 2010. He has toured South America several times every season since 2002. He has collaborated with conductors such as Alsop, Brabbins, De Waart, Dohnanyi, Entremont, Fedoseyev, Neeme Jaervi, Karabits, Krivine, Lintu, Luisotti, Petrenko, Saraste, Segerstam, Sokhiev, Soustrot, and Tortelier.
Giltburg has played recitals to audiences across Europe in major venues such as the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, Vienna Konzerthaus, Munich Herkulessaal, Paris Louvre, Zurich Tonhalle, Wigmore Hall, Teatro San Carlo in Naples and Madrid Sony Auditorium. Festival appearances have included the Klavierfest am Ruhr, Schwetzingen, Luzern, Piano aux Jacobins and Cheltenham. Highlights of 2013/14 included recitals at the Leipzig Gewandhaus, Brussels Palais des Beaux-Arts, and a return to London’s Southbank Centre (International Piano Series).
In August 2012 Giltburg released the Prokofiev ‘War’ sonatas on the Orchid label to excellent reviews worldwide, and appearing in Gramophone as ‘Editor’s Choice’: “These performances of Prokofiev’s three ‘War’ Sonatas eclipse all others on record – even those tirelessly and justifiably celebrated performances by Richter and Gilels” (Gramophone, October 2012). He has most recently recorded sonatas by Rachmaninov, Liszt and Grieg.
Here’s the transcript for those who prefer to read my interviews:
Melanie Spanswick: Israeli concert pianist, Boris Giltburg, won first prize at the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels last year. He’s also been nominated for a Classic BRIT Award, as well as many other accolades. So I’m thrilled he’s taken the time from a very busy schedule to join me here today at Jaques Samuel Pianos in London for a Classical Conversation. Welcome.
Boris Giltburg: Hello, Melanie.
Melanie: Lovely to be chatting to you today.
Boris: Thank you, my pleasure.
Melanie: I’m going to start by asking about your education. I always start by asking what age you started, why you started, whether you come from a musical family.
Boris: I do. My mom, my grandma, and my great grandmother were music piano teachers. And we always had a piano at home. So, for me it, seemed absolutely obviousI should play. Whereas, to my mom, it seemed I perhaps should do something more practical, and she was quite against the idea that I play the piano. So I, at 5 years old, was denied something I really really really wanted it, and I insisted and I insisted until the point where she relented and started giving me lessons. And that’s how we started. It was still in Moscow, before we moved to Israel. And the rest of my education, the main part of it, was in Israel. My big one teacher, the one teacher of my life, is Arie Vardi in Israel.
Melanie: That’s what I was about to say, “Which teacher do you think was most crucial?”
Boris: Well, I would say both Mom and him, because I studied with him for 15 years almost. And so, it’s a long time. Almost everything I think and do in what concerns sound, style, to musical text, phrasing, to almost everything in musical interpretation is by the prism of what he taught me or what I’ve learnt from him, but I know that, from my mom’s point of view, I can rely on her 100% every time. She’s not at all, “Oh, this is lovely!”
She’s a very strict critic, and I know that if something is bad,she would always tell me.
Melanie: So, how did you develop your technique over the years? Did you used to practice sections in pieces or did you practice studies?
Boris: No, I hated studies.
And scales, all of that. Most every piece of classical music is full of scales and study-like passages. Whereas, if you do just the studies, there’s sometimes boring technical exercises. If you do them inside a musical work, then the technical part becomes just one variable of it – of the entire thing, and in good music, the technique is always in service of a higher musical aim of some sort. And when you work on a piece of music and you want to get a certain musical result, then the technical challenge becomes – It’s not annoying. It’s not an obstacle. It’s something which you want to overcome and integrate inside the interpretation to get to the musical result you want to get. So, it’s easier to solve problems in Liszt’s Piano Sonata than in some of Czerny’s etudes.
Melanie: And more enjoyable, too.
Boris: Yes,much more so.
Melanie: Now, you won the Queen Elisabeth prize. It must have had a huge impact on your career. How’s it changed and shaped it do you think?
Boris: It gave a very big push. There’s was a very big list on engagements right after the competition. Not only that, but the prestige of the Queen Elisabeth was one of the reasons why I wanted so much to participate, many of my biggest musical heroes have won it in the past, including Gilels, and Oistrakh, and Ashkenazy. So, to have won this – and this is probably the last one – not probably- this is definitely, this is definitely, this is definitely the last competition I’m going to take part in.
Melanie: Well, that was going to be my next question. How do you feel about competitions in general? Because you’ve taken part in quite a few.
Boris: Yes. Many more when I was a small kid. In the last 10 years, just three. I won Santander in Spain 2002. Then I took part in Rubinstein Competition inTel Avivand won 2nd prize. And then Brussels last year. I think when you’re a small kid, it’s just sheer fun. You have nothing to fear, nothing to lose. The older you become, the more heavy the responsibility when going to a competition and, I think I’m extremely happy to be able to end my competition career on this note with this prize at this competition.
Melanie: Sure. Which composers do you love to play?
Boris: I’m omnivorous,so almost everything, but two big groups. from which I almost always draw works for recitals are the Germans and the Russians. A lot of variety inside this group, from Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann, Schubert,all composers who are German.Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Scriabin, Shostakovich, in the Russians. The Russians, I think, are easier to explain, because even though I grew up in Israel, I’m still very much a Russian person inside. Or more exact is to say that Russian culture, Russian language, Russian literature, poetry, and music are extremely close to my heart. The Germans, I just love them.
Melanie: You like them all?
Boris: Yes, no logical explanation. They just appeal to my imagination, to – both my heart and head.
Melanie: You’ve recorded the late Prokofiev sonatas, the War sonatas, to great acclaim. What attracts you to this music?
Boris: War sonatas? Prokofiev in general is a master story teller. He – even his early works, he- within a few bars, he weaves an entire world around you and then places the music as a story told within this world. And this is something which I find extremely attractive. It appeals to your imagination in a very dark way. He’s also sometimes very visual, like a good filmmaker. He knows how to mix close-up scenes with the wide angle shots. So, he’ll take you into the action or take you out and show you the larger perspective. His harmonic language is quirky, fun and very spiky in a rude kind of way. He adds bad notes and somehow it all sounds right and it ends right.
Melanie: I feel it suits your articulation, which is absolutely fantastic, if I may say.
Boris: Well, from the technical point of view I find that his style of writing suits my hands like no other composer. I don’t know, maybe his hands were somewhat similar; but, for example, Rachmaninov, whom I love just as much, but technically he’s much more difficult for my hands. But Prokofiev, the music just seems to sit very comfortably in the fingers. The articulation, like you said, this kind of thing – I was just working on-just now- on two Rachmaninov concertos, the Second and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. I was thinking how much easier I find the Rhapsody, where the technical approach is closer in some way-to Prokofiev.
Melanie: I was going to say that, yes,it is isn’t it?
Boris: So, less blocks – less heavy blocks of chords and more I would say percussive, but more single line voices, shifts between hands, and more clarity and transparency. I think the Prokofiev in some ways, even in its most thick texture, he’s a neoclassicist of some degree, to a certain degree and he always retains a transparency, which one would expect to find rather in Beethoven or Mozart or Haydn, imitating like whom he wrote the classical symphony. He wants to write something which he might have written if he lived at that time. And the way his music, whereas Rachmaninov is extremely visceral, and he goes directly into your heart. Prokofiev- Playing his Second Piano Concerto, for example, is like reading a great novel by Kafka and the War sonatas, which you asked me about, they’re are of course knowing the circumstances in which the music was written- so, not only the invasion of Russia by Hitler in the Second World War, but also the terror within Russia. It was just after the great purge of Stalin in ’37-’38, in which nearly two million people were made to disappear without a trace, and Prokofiev himself lost many friends and people he knew. And the combination of those things, the terror within and the terror without, they lead to three works which are – it’s like a chronicle of the time, and it’s – I think it’s a masterpiece, even by his standards and something he has never surpassed in his other works of piano. There’s a kind of, it’s actually in the Eighth. The way he manages to reach some sort of objectivity. So, in the Sixth for example, it’s very much inside theaction in the sonata, and it’s the enemy marching towards with blank dead eyes. There is no objectivity at all there. The Seventh for me is more about the terror of which I’ve told you, Stalin’s – Stalin’s kind of terror, and the fabulous finale which, he thought was the triumph of humanity over all obstacles; which this could just as easily signify or depict the triumph of a well-oiled machine over everything, including that spirit of humanity. It just tramples everything in its path to glory, anything. But it in the Eighth, he manages to surpass even those two. It reaches some altitude of – all of his energy and quirkiness is still there, but there’s also wisdom and objectivity as I said, and a tapestry which he creates, especially in the first movement. I think it’s a masterpiece, a work of art of any time and period. So playing it is a big privilege and a very special experience.
Melanie: And do you plan to record all the sonatas? A whole Prokofiev project?
Boris: Well, I’ve recorded some Romantic sonatas and my last CD, which I’ve just recorded last week and will be released in the winter, is Schumann. As for more Prokofiev, maybe the concerti. The exercises, I love very much number four. I like very much number two and three. One, five, and nine, I’m – at the moment, I still find a bit hard to understand. Well, Five specifically is very obscure work for me. Nine is lovely. It’s a bit weaker, I find, than the others, and one is just very early work. So, it’s not easy to sense the essence of Prokofiev in it. But I think that even those three sonatas – just on their own – if Prokofiev left nothing else, they would be testimony of a very great artist.
Melanie: Do you have a particular practice routine?
Boris: Not really.
Melanie: I read somewhere you practice on a silent piano?
Boris: Yes and no. The grand piano which I have at home has a silent piano mode on it, so if I need to practice, this is quite a life saver. And it acted as a life saver a few times, but this is just for an emergency. For a normal kind of work, you must have the real response of the real key, the real sound. One thing which I do is I record myself quite a lot and then I listen to it right away, because often it’s hard when playing to hear the larger line, to hear the movements or the work in its entirety; and also many things which you don’t notice when you are at the keyboard, suddenly when heard from a distance, they sound really – they’re very prominent. This is something which is part of the daily work. And other than that, it’s just practicing, just working as much as possible. The material we are working with is so rich. It’s inexhaustibly rich. It’s like a mine which you can never reach the bottom of. And those works, they grow with you. So if you come back to visit and play it five or six years ago or ten years ago, you’ll usually find that there’s more to discover, more layers to bring up. This makes the everyday practice not really work, but a journey of discovery. So it can be sometimes frustrating when you are unable to do something you want to, and sometimes you don’t know why. You don’t know what you need to change in order to get there, but still I think that the positive points overcome the landslides, over the others.
Melanie: What are your future plans, concerts, recordings?
Boris: Well, for recordings after the Schuman, the next CD is probably going to be Beethoven, Beethoven sonatas. For concerts, next season is fully packed. Many things in Europe. Many things in the Far East.Many things in South America. A few things in the States. I’m playing for the first time with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra with Marin Alsop. In Japan, China, then many things in Israel, too, in my home country. It’s an exciting time.
Melanie: Sure, of course. What does playing the piano mean to you?
Boris: It’s my life. It’s one of the best things I know of. This is one of the many things that drive me forwards, that makes me want to go and do things. My main way of doing things is by playing. I would say it’s about expressing myself a little. It’s about reaching some kind of musical truth in the piece. And this truth might change with time; but, for tonight, there is something which we know is there in the piece, and when you are able to reach it and to show it or play it for the audience, this feeling is incomparable. I wouldn’t be able to do this without playing the piano. And I also love playing the piano because it’s a hands-on experience. As opposed, for example, to conducting, where you need to make other people do the music you want. I imagine it’s even more complicated. For me just the physical sensation of doing it with my own hands, with my own body, this is also a big part of the fun. And yeah, I think so.
Melanie: Thank you so much for joining me today, Boris.
Boris: My pleasure.
Melanie: Thank you.
Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.
For more information, please visit the publications page, here.