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Dmitry SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Piano Concerto No. 1 [23:23]
Piano Concerto No. 2 [19:59]
Waltz from String Quartet No. 2 (arr. B. Giltburg for piano) [5:56]
String Quartet No. 8 (arr. B. Giltburg for piano) [20:28]
Boris Giltburg (piano)
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko
rec. Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, 21-25 Jan 2016 (concertos), Concert Hall, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, 16 June 2016 (arrangements)
NAXOS 8.573666 [69:47]

Boris Giltburg has burst relatively recently onto the international piano scene, but what a splash he has made! He gave three sets of concerts with the RSNO last year, and they were highlights of the 2015-16 season for me. Naxos have done well to snap him up so quickly, and his early discs with them have been well received.

Shostakovich’s piano concertos are a natural next step for him, their combination of humour and depth appealing to his gifts, and it was inspired to pair him up with the UK’s most lauded Shostakovich team in Petrenko and the RLPO. The results are, predictably, of the very highest quality.

For one thing, Petrenko and Giltburg are very clearly on the same page in terms of the music’s mood.  The First Concerto blows a raspberry at the outset, and sets off with madcap actions and zany swerves that are worthy of a silent movie score. I loved the feeling of the music’s unpredictability. Anything could happen here! There is energy in the orchestral playing and direction that is utterly winning, and the strings heap glory upon themselves with the emotional weight that they find for the first concerto’s Lento, one of the composer’s most moving elegies. The finale is particularly winning, and I loved the sense of orchestra and soloists not so much finishing one another’s sentences as interrupting each other, or chasing each other around the room! Giltburg gets brilliantly inside the enforced optimism of the first movement, and he seems to drift through a whole spectrum of emotions for the ensuing Lento movement, duetting with the strings with enormous poignancy.

Rhys Owens keeps the trumpet’s end up, even though Shostakovich seems to forget about him for lengthy periods, and the recorded balance is good, matching him with Giltburg as an equal, though a little more blend with the orchestra might have worked better. In every other respect, however, the recording is top notch. His muted solo in the slow movement is magical, full of unfulfillable longing, expressed in long, slow lines that are very moving.

The second concerto is both lighter-hearted and more acerbic. The jaunty winds that launch the first movement are jovially ignored by the piano as it sets off on its own course, and the manic central section seems to plough a still different furrow. This work feels lighter in mood - though, of course, with Shostakovich, you can never be sure - and there is more airiness and propulsion to the music, something Petrenko brings to life brilliantly with the big string theme around five minutes into the first movement. Predictably, the slow movement is absolutely gorgeous, moving unhurriedly through the strings’ opening to the piano’s blissfully meandering theme, and the interaction between them is beautifully judged. The finale is sparky, irreverent and full of energy. Someone once likened this movement to a clown on a unicycle throwing custard pies, and if that’s a crude analogy then it’s actually a rather lovely one. Petrenko gets all the orchestral vigour into the mix, and Giltburg’s playing is remarkably disciplined, his precision making the controlled chaos sound all the more impressive.

As a bonus, Giltburg includes some arrangements of music from Shostakovich’s string quartets that he himself has made for solo piano, and he provides really interesting alternatives to the established ones that you’ll know. The waltz from the second quartet is unsettlingly manic, and a bit unreal altogether. The eighth quartet goes much deeper, however. The opening, as the composer’s own motif gently unfolds unto itself, suits the dark tone of the middle keyboard surprisingly well, and the rest of the first movement seems to wander through darkness searching (in vain) for the light. The relentless driving of the second movement and the nose-thumbing of the third feels a bit more like the texture of a sonata, albeit a highly virtuosic one, but the dark unisons of the fourth movement sound even more compelling in the piano. In the notes, Giltburg likens the clusters of chords to “heavy knocks on the door, a much dreaded sound,” and that sense of despair seems to linger on in the meandering finale where, again, the textures of the middle keyboard seem to add something to the music, casting it rather differently to when a quartet plays it, but creating something just as musically valid.

The recorded sound is excellent for both venues, the performances are top notch and, importantly, the mood is impeccably judged by a team of expert Shostakovich interpreters. Perhaps it doesn’t quite displace Alexander Melnikov’s recent Shostakovich disc as a top choice for the concertos, but it comes pretty damn close and has the quartet arrangements as a USP. It can also be yours for a fraction of Melnikov’s cost.

Incidentally, Giltburg himself writes the booklet essay, which is excellent, giving insights into the composer, the arranging process and the experience of performing. Snap it up!

Simon Thompson


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