Classical pianist Boris Giltburg says Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 has a reputation for being “the most difficult piano concerto of all.”
And he should know.
Giltburg is considered one of the leading interpreters of Rachmaninoff’s music, and those abilities will be on full display this week in a series of concerts in Northern Utah. The Utah Symphony will present the program “Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3” on Thursday, Nov. 7, at Weber State University in Ogden, and on Friday and Saturday, Nov. 8-9, at Abravanel Hall in Salt Lake City. The Ogden concert is part of Onstage Ogden’s Utah Symphony Masterworks Series.
The Moscow-born Israeli pianist will be the featured soloist with the symphony, which will also feature conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto and mezzo-soprano Kirstin Chavez. Along with the Rachmaninoff piece, the program will also include Revueltas’ “Sensemaya,” and Falla’s “The Three Cornered Hat.”
Although the Rachmaninoff concerto has a reputation for being extremely difficult, Giltburg believes that designation may be a disservice to the piece, since it shifts the focus “from the content to the challenge.”
“It’s like saying ‘War and Peace is long and has difficult sentences,’” Giltburg explained in a recent telephone interview. “Yes, that may be true, but that’s not the core of the work.”
Giltburg said the Rachmaninoff piece is difficult both musically and technically, but it also requires great stamina for a pianist. Why?
“As it goes along, the piano needs to put in more and more energy, and you need the biggest energy outburst at the finale,” Giltburg said.
With such a strong musical element, Giltburg doesn’t know that Rachmaninoff was necessarily showing off with the technical aspects of the piece — although he doesn’t rule it out.
“(Rachmaninoff) was one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century, and it was very possible he wanted to show off a little with this concerto,” Giltburg said. “But he wouldn’t be the first. Beethoven, Mozart — many composers did that. Beethoven even wrote in a letter that the reason he made one of his pieces so difficult was to foil some of his rivals in Vienna. He knew they would be asked to play it, and they wouldn’t be able to do that.”
Still, Giltburg says difficulty for the sake of difficulty isn’t what the Rachmaninoff concerto is about.
“The challenges are simply a — I don’t want to say side effect, but — a necessity in order to express what needed to be expressed,” he said.
Giltburg’s love affair with Rachmaninoff’s music exists on many levels.
“The incredible melodies,” he said, “these endless, generous rich tunes he can write one after another. Once you hear it you can’t forget, it goes to your heart.”
Giltburg also praises Rachmaninoff’s “rich harmonic language that offers a palette of colors and nuances that are unsurpassed.”
He also appreciates the composer’s sense of narrative.
“I find it extremely attractive because of the storytelling behind the music,” Giltburg said. There is just something in his soul which shines through in the music. There is warmth, and everything is extremely sincere and heartfelt — never artificial, never theatrical. … He really speaks from his heart to your heart.”
However, in all that beauty are plenty of brains, too, according to Giltburg. Rachmaninoff’s music features plenty of “thought-out structure and details” for those so inclined.
“It’s not broad brush strokes, but very precise and meticulous,” he said. “There’s a strong appeal to your head as well as your heart that I quite like.”
Although many music historians think of Rachmaninoff as a romantic, old-fashioned composer who was stuck in the 19th century, Giltburg says there is definitely a sense of progression and development within the composer’s own musical language.
“He made this transition from utterly romantic music to music that is more muscular, lean, transparent and — in its spirit — more modern,” Giltburg said. “His last works were very firmly in the 20th century.”
And Rachmaninoff’s third concerto, according to Giltburg, fits nicely between those two worlds.
Giltburg has admitted in past interviews that Rachmaninoff is the one classical composer that he’d like to perform all of his music. The pianist is about halfway through that process at this point.
Next year, Giltburg says he’ll take a bit of a sabbatical from Rachmaninoff and concentrate on another classical composer. The year 2020 is the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven, and in honor of that occasion Giltburg will be using all of his free time — “and then some” — to learn, play and film all 32 of Beethoven’s sonatas throughout the year. He’ll be blogging about the experience, and his progress can be followed at beethoven32.com.
Giltburg has offered a couple of master classes while here in Utah, and he regularly blogs and puts together educational videos about classical music.
“The overarching desire is just to bring more people to classical music,” he explains.
Giltburg says he looks forward to his three performances with the Utah Symphony this week.
“I’d like to say I’m very happy to be here for a second time, and I hope it’s not my last time,” he said. “The orchestra here is so enthusiastic in its music-making. And I feel a close connection to Utah even though it’s only my second time here.”