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Shostakovich String Quartet No. 8 in Piano Version

New York
Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall
10/27/2016 -  
Sergei Rachmaninov: Etudes-tableaux, op. 39
Alexander Scriabin: Sonata No. 4 in F-sharp Major, op. 30
Dmitri Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 8 in C-minor, op. 110 (arr. Giltburg)
Sergei Prokofiev: Sonata No. 7 in B-flat Major, op. 83

Boris Giltburg (Piano)

B. Giltburg (© Sasha Gusov)

Moscow born Israeli pianist Boris Giltburg is not a newcomer to New York. Several years ago he appeared at the International Keyboard Festival and Institute, and then, if my memory serves me well, more recently presented in NY another solo recital. My initial contact with his art was through various BBC and other European broadcasts, when I recognized in this pianist an unusual talent, a talent recognized as well by the juries of the Arthur Rubinstein Competition Tel Aviv, where in 2011 he was awarded a Silver Medal and the audience prize, and then again in 2013 when he triumphed at the Queen Elizabeth International Competition in Brussels. Shortly thereafter I had a chance to hear him in Poland, at the International Chopin Festival in Duszniki, where he again left a very memorable impression performing Chopin and Prokofiev. To this day many listeners remember that performance as one of the most outstanding of that summer.

On October 27, 2016, Giltburg returned to New York, this time to Zankel Hall (at Carnegie Hall), where he was presented by the American Friends of The Arthur Rubinstein International Music Society. He devoted his program entirely to Russian composers, offering works by Rachmaninov, Scriabin, Shostakovich and Prokofiev. Whereas his mastery of Rachmaninov and Prokofiev were well known – he recorded Prokofiev’s Three War Sonatas and more recently, for Naxos, Etudes-Tableaux op. 39 by Rachmaninov – it was the Shostakovich work that commanded the most interest during that superb recital. Rather than take the customary route and play some of the well-known Preludes and Fugues from op. 87, he offered his audience a rarity: his own transcription of the String Quartet No. 8. This quartet, the shortest and perhaps best known of the fifteen that constitute the composer’s output in that genre, is sometimes referred as the “Dresden Quartet”. It was in this city that Shostakovich in 1960 composed his masterpiece in just a few days. After the war Dresden found itself in East Germany, and during the composer’s visit there the city was still largely devastated. Because of its dedication “To the Memory of the Victims of Fascism”, early scholars tried to connect the work’s intense climate with the sirens, confusion, brutality and even aircraft gunfire. It fit well with then current Soviet propaganda and the Eight Quartet was officially proclaimed an anti-fascist work. Later the popularity of this quartet increased even more when the great Russian violist-conductor Rudolf Barshai transcribed it for string orchestra (it is sometimes called String Symphony op. 110).

It is however a well-known fact that no other works of Shostakovich are as autobiographical as his string quartets, and to a slightly lesser degree, his symphonies. The very personal aspect of the String Quartet No. 8 is exemplified by two characteristics: first, the obsessive use of his musical signature, a motif based on four notes D, Eflat, C and B, which in German constitute the first letters of the composer’s name; second, in quotes of Shostakovich’s own works. Here his subversive private thoughts, to those who wanted to read into tormented mind of the creator, were quite explicit. In the fourth movement Largo he quotes a well-known 19th-century prisoners’ song Exhausted by the Hardship of Prison. The words can nonetheless be translated as “Tormented by the Lack of Freedom”, something no one would dare to utter under the Communist rule of Soviet Russia. Elsewhere there is an abundance of quotes derived from other Shostakovich works: the Cello Concerto No.1, an aria from Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, the First and Fifth Symphonies, but perhaps more than anything else, the last movement of the Piano Trio No. 2, that famous dance inspired by Jewish themes. The pervasive, persistent use of the opening motif in all sorts of form and shape invariably brings to my mind a similar musical game played by Beethoven in his Diabelli Variations, except here one feels not the joy of being able to manipulate four notes, but rather a suffering never too far away from the composer’s mind or creativity. The many deliberate references to himself were later confirmed in a letter Shostakovich wrote to his friend, the drama critic Isaak Glikman: “I was thinking about the fact that if I die sometime or other, it’s unlikely that someone will write a work in my memory. So I decided to write it myself”.

Giltburg’s transcription of the quartet is, in my opinion, a genuine success. The piano version sounds authentic, true, and convincing. It leaves the listener believing that it was originally written for the piano. I was very impressed by the performance as well. The moody character, the violent changes, the timbres of varied string instruments were credibly projected and offered with the expected ferocity. Few works in the genre of string quartet transcribed for piano solo come to mind; yet for me there is no doubt that with the moment of appearance of Giltburg CD (on Naxos, with whom the pianist has a long-term contract) with that transcription, many pianist will seek his arrangement that would supplement the existing, nevertheless not too extensive, output of Shostakovich. In his insightful and excellently written program notes Giltburg observes: “Shostakovich is a composer I couldn’t live without, but as a pianist I was always slightly envious of the string quartets and symphonies... I was tremendously grateful to receive the permission of Shostakovich’s family to make this arrangement... it is a true privilege”. Well, I think we all should be grateful for Giltburg’s transcription as an extraordinarily valuable addition to the piano repertory.

The recital opened with the full set of nine Etudes-tableaux op. 39 by Sergei Rachmaninov. Here one had to marvel at the pianist’s subtlety, power and imagination. Though slightly built, Giltburg is able to produce a huge sound, often with weight directed to the bass register. Yet one hears none of the banging or shrillness that typifies many of the younger virtuosos. Giltburg’s athletic, passionate playing was as often balanced by tenderness, suppleness and attention paid to the delineation of voices, as in the grand Etude No. 5 in E-flat minor, where toward the end the returning main theme still rang efficiently through the thickness of a surrounding uproar of gigantic chords. In the other etudes I admired the artist’s vision of adopting a slightly slower pace, which allowed him to bring up otherwise missed details.

Where finger dexterity was needed, as in the Etudes No.1, No.3 and No.6, the Russian-Israeli had it in spades. Still, as indicated in his already cited, superbly written program notes, he views the musical tapestries of the etudes as stories to be told. For him each one is an image, a painting or perhaps a situation; each line represents a circumstance, incident, or condition. His sense of visual imagination was almost palpable, the connection between composer and performer nearly symbiotic and his understanding of the score profound. In my memory it was one of the most satisfying versions of that set. No less impressive was Scriabin’s Sonata No .4, a short, mercurial two-movement piece with a languid and sensuous Andante followed by a mercurial Prestissimo volando full of fervor, vehemence, energy and turbulence.

To the Prokofiev Sonata No. 7 the pianist brought all of the muscular virtuosic elements of the outer movements, especially in the brutal final Precipitato, one of the most demonic endings in the piano canon. But for me, as important as Giltburg’s fearless virtuosity was his tenderness in the slow movement, especially in the intoning of that monotonous two-note sigh somewhat akin to Ravel’s bell in the “Le Gibet” segment of Gaspard de la nuit.

To show that he can command in equal measure power, a large sound, tremendous energy and delicacy, nuance, and a fine touch, our soloist offered as his only encore a lovely account of the Liszt Concert Etude “La leggierezza”.

Roman Markowicz



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