By John Pitcher
Nashville Symphony music director Giancarlo Guerrero is always on the lookout for great talent. This weekend, he’s bringing one of the world’s most prodigiously gifted pianists to Music City. Boris Giltburg, a Russian-born Israeli pianist, is joining the Nashville Symphony at the Schermerhorn this weekend to perform two of Rachmaninoff’s most challenging pieces – the Piano Concerto No. 4 and Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.
Playing two Rachmaninoff concertos in a single concert is a lot like adding an extra 10 miles to a marathon. It’s an exercise in endurance. But Giltburg, who recently recorded all of Rachmaninoff’s fiendishly difficult Etudes Tableaux for the Franklin-based Naxos label, has the chops to play any music. We recently asked Giltburg about Rachmaninoff, and about his life as a concert pianist.
You’ve recently recorded some of the solo piano music of Robert Schumann and Sergei Rachmaninoff for the Naxos label. Rachmaninoff recorded some of the same music back in the 1920s and 1930s. Did his recordings influence you in any way?
No, he’s not had a direct influence on my playing. But his work as both a conductor and pianist has influenced my approach to his music. Rachmaninoff has this reputation of being a Romantic, of being an artist concerned only with creating a lush sound. But that’s not what I hear in his piano recordings, or in the recording of him conducting his Symphony No. 3. As an interpreter, he is very modern in his approach. Nothing is lush. It is all lean, precise and pointed.
You’ll be playing his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini with the Nashville Symphony. This piece has a reputation for being in the Romantic style, probably because of its unforgettably beautiful 18th Variation. But this has always struck me as a very modern piece. What are your thoughts?
I agree. When Rachmaninoff began his career, he worked very much in the tradition of Tchaikovsky, as a Russian Romantic. But over time his music became increasingly rooted in 20th century modernism. Prokofiev’s music was rooted in modernism from the start. But it took time for Rachmaninoff’s music to get there. By the time he wrote his later works, like his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and Symphonic Dances, he was thinking and working more like a modern.
You’ll be playing both the Rhapsody and Rachmaninoff’s Fourth Piano Concerto with the Nashville Symphony. The Rhapsody is one of Rachmaninoff’s big hits, but his Fourth Concerto has never really caught on. What’s been the problem?
I think the Fourth Concerto was a transition piece for Rachmaninoff. His Second and Third Piano Concertos were in the Russian Romantic style and had an immediate appeal with audiences. But in the Fourth Concerto, Rachmaninoff was still working to develop a new style, which was not yet perfected. By the time we get to his Rhapsody he has mastered his new style.
You started playing the piano at age 5. When did you know you wanted to be a professional pianist?
There was no single point. I started studying piano when I was five in Russia, and I continued with it when my family moved to Israel two years later. I gave my first concert at age 7. At 8, I was giving concerts to help out my family, who needed assistance after they emigrated. I was already thinking of myself as a professional pianist at that point.
When did you get your big break?
The first big break came in 2002, when I won the Paloma O’Shea International Piano Competition in Spain. I got a lot of orchestra engagements after that competition. Later I entered the Rubinstein Competition in Israel. Then in 2013, I won the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels. That competition meant a lot to me, because it’s the one that my biggest heroes, [Russian violinist] David Oistrakh and [Russian pianist] Emil Gilels, had both won back in the 1930s.
You recently made your debut at Carnegie Hall. How did that go?
I have to admit I was a little nervous. But at the same time I was very excited. Here is the hall where all of the great artists have performed. That inspired me to play my best.
You’ve bee recording for the Naxos label. Do you have any recordings coming out?
Yes, I have two that I’m very excited about. In January I have a recording of the two Shostakovich Piano Concertos coming out with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. That recording will include my piano solo arrangement of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8. I love Shostakovich’s dark musical language, so I’m very excited about the recording. Then in the spring I have a recording of Rachmaninoff’s Second and Third Piano Concertos coming out with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.
What do you think of Nashville?
It’s a wonderful city, and I am having a great experience working with the Nashville Symphony. It’s truly one of the great orchestras. And the concert hall is fabulous. We’re going to have a great concert.
Giltburg performs with the Nashville Symphony at 7 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. Tickets are available at nashvillesymphony.org or by calling 615-687-6400.