The Anatomy of Melancholy: A recital by Boris Giltburg

Reversing the first half of the printed program, piano virtuoso Boris Giltburg (b. 1984) delivered a spectacularly successful recital for the Steinway Society the Bay Area at Le Petit Trianon Theatre, Saturday, March 11, with a program of dark, Romantic works by Brahms, Beethoven, and Rachmaninoff. But given Giltburg’s colossal technique and gift for poetic utterance, he made even the most familiar work – namely, Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata – resound with a freshness and authority that removed much sentimental dust from its pages. The rarely performed Brahms Op. 116 Fantasien – that is, played as a complete suite – opened the program, since Giltburg felt he needed more time spent with these compressed “bachelor’s thoughts” (1892) of the aging composer, whose intensely personal, autumnal musings often concentrate much contrapuntal and rhythmically protean materials into a small, melancholy space. In fact, melancholy might have provided the evening’s rubric, with the mighty yet mostly nostalgic figures of the Rachmaninoff Op. 32 Preludes’ serving as the finale to a diversely colorful concert.

Beethoven’s Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp Minor, Op. 27, No. 2 (1801) came to haunt the composer virtually the same way as Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in the same key, a kind of popular icon that overshadowed much the composer preferred in his works. The famous Adagio sostenuto first movement, here however, received from Giltburg a faster tempo, which attenuated from its ostinato triplets that brooding, ubiquitously-haunted atmosphere in favor of an energized meditation that no less mesmerized the audience. Its D-flat Allegretto movement, a kind of stately gavotte, simply converts its C-sharp modality to its enharmonic alter ego, here by Giltburg in a stance more marcato than other pianists’ conceptions. The last movement quite peeled the paint off the old chrome, with a blazing toccata, Presto agitato, that managed to appear a brilliant improvisation, much in the “experimental” style Beethoven may have intended for his pair of sonatas, Op. 27, which he indicated as “Quasi una fantasia.” Giltburg manipulated his pedal and digital skills to create a tempered and tempestuous realization that had character and architecture, poetry and bravura, at once.

The Brahms sets of late pieces from 1890-1893 eschew his penchant for large forms and concentrate – much as his Romantic contemporaries Grieg, Mendelssohn, and Schumann – on consise, introverted character pieces whose innate pianism belies much that conventionally appears virtuosic. These works often employ tiny gestures and pulsations, rhythmic kernels, that weave polyrhythms and compound melodies into a compressed space, often in anticipation of the music of the Second Viennese School of Schoenberg and Berg, whose thoughts further pulverize into atomic structures. Still, in Brahms, the deft maker of sad, affecting (thumb) melodies operates effectively, as in the relatively epic No. 4 Intermezzo in E Major, with its use of variations in the midst of plaintive thoughts. The two “bracketing” pieces in D Minor, both Capriccios, had from Giltburg a convulsive, Lisztian abandon and blazing patina, quite hectic on either end. The first of the Intermezzos, in A Minor, quite set the tone of drooping melancholy, and the darkly colorful hues had about them a gloomy pageant, like a line from Poe or a landscape from De Chirico. The E Minor (No. 5) from Giltburg enjoyed a special aura of blurred bar lines and askew, static rhythmic motives that, despite their resolution into E Major, seem to “laugh but smile no more.” The disjunction between active, even violent motion, and any sense of mirth erupted in Giltburg’s last series of chords, the coda in 3/8 fortissimo that concludes the D Minor Capriccio, a resolute assertion of amor fati, acceptance of fate, at whatever price.

Sergei Rachmaninoff followed Chopin’s example – after Bach – in creating his set of twenty-four preludes in the major and minor keys, the thirteen of Op. 32 (1910) meant to complement his former eleven of Op. 23 and the Op. No. 2 in C-sharp Minor. Rachmaninoff sought a deeper harmony and more intricate complexity in his Op. 32, often alluding to figurations from Bach, Chopin, and Liszt, especially the last’s Transcendental Etudes. Declamatory, lyrical, and brilliantly virtuosic, they often demand huge spans for both hands, the direct product of the composer’s own hands, which could accomplish a thirteenth. Like Beethoven, Rachmaninoff sets an initial rhythmic or melodic fragment upon which he builds and varies throughout the prelude. Giltburg’s rendition of the E Minor had a slick patina in the manner of touch-piece, like Liszt’s study Feux Follets; but it soon developed into a menacing, driven etude in the manner of a truncated sonata movement. Many signified the composer’s penchant for Russian bells, as in the A Minor, which seems to take its motor impulse from the final Gigue in Bach’s B-flat Partita. Rachmaninoff, like Chopin and Liszt, sees f minor as an occasion for fury and concentrated passion, and Giltburg seized the moment. For those well familiar with the set, the B Minor (No. 10) – inspired by a painting by Arnold Boecklin – proffered a large and elegiac tone-poem whose noble melody against hammered triplets intimates “the Return.” For sheer, diaphanous figures to emerge from Giltburg’s Aeolian Harp, we had the marvelous G Major Prelude, in which an aerial melody rises over silken arpeggios, much like Liszt’s many water-pieces. The G-sharp Minor (No. 12) bore similarities to No. 5 in G, but intensely sad in its quasi-rondo structure. The final work in the set, in D-flat Major, borrowed touches and figurations from several of its previous companions, but its cumulative power under Giltburg transcended any label as a mere pastiche. Studied and stylish, these gripping exercises accorded Giltburg the imprimatur of the natural Russian virtuoso, old-style, a la Sviatoslav Richter.

In response to yet another sustained demonstration of vivid applause, Giltburg granted us one encore, the youthful – the composer was fifteen – Scriabin Etude in C-sharp Minor, Op. 2, No. 1 (1887). Poignant and poised, this marvelous miniature in ¾ that generates rich, chromatic harmonies and tender melancholy, signified the evening in microcosm, the Russian soul’s immersed in intimations of mortality.


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