Boris Giltburg at Birmingham Town Hall ★★★

Both on disc and in recital it has become accepted that a performance of Rachmaninov’s Preludes should begin with his earliest, the C sharp minor, Op 3 No 2. While this makes chronological sense it’s poor showmanship since, such is its popularity and barnstorming impact, everything that follows can be an anti-climax. So it proved here. After its premiere in 1899 Rachmaninov played it as an encore – due to audience demand – at virtually every appearance until his death in 1943. It would have made him a fortune if he hadn’t sold the copyright for a one-off fee, just as Sibelius did with ‘Valse Triste’, to his lifelong regret. Giltburg made the sinister tolling bell-like opening chords suitably impressive and then lightened his tone so that their eventual return had the doom-laden impact the piece demands. Like the agonies of a man being buried alive – as one female fan wrote to the composer.

This hints at a problem when the recital programme consists of Rachmaninov’s twenty-four Preludes. It would be unfair to say they exhibit only twenty-four shades of melancholy – but not too unfair. Unlike Chopin’s Op.28 Preludes, a musical cornucopia dazzling with variety and colour, Rachmaninov’s limited musical palette requires constant intervention and interpretation from the soloist to stave off musical and emotional – monotony would be too strong a word – sameness. Giltburg has the technical armoury, demonstrated in his ease in coping with the huge spans demanded in the final D flat major Prelude, but I missed the flights of imagination and fancy that would really bring these pieces to life. There were certainly good things here as in Giltburg’s handling of the Bach-influenced C minor and E major Preludes and the C major’s extroverted nod to Liszt. Best of all was the G sharp minor Prelude – surely Rachmaninov’s response to Chopin’s Op.28 No.15 ‘Raindrop’ – where Giltburg gave the shower an icy Russian feel.

Norman Stinchcombe

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