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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Paraphrase de concert sur Rigoletto (Verdi) (1859) S434 [7:50]
12 Transcendental Études (Douze études d’exécution transcendente), S139 (1852) [66:02]
3 Etudes de concert S144: No. 2: La leggierezza (1848) [5:28]
Boris Giltburg (piano)
rec. 2018, Concert Hall, Wyastone Estate, UK
NAXOS 8.573981 [79:30]

I have to say that up until now, I’d not caught up with any of Boris Giltburg’s recordings on Naxos. So when his recording of Liszt’s Études d’exécution transcendente came up on the review list, I thought it was worth giving it a go. I am very familiar with these works, having over twenty versions in my CD library and having played most of the etudes myself over the last twenty-five years. I should also say that it’s most unusual to record them with anything else on the disc and here, we have the famous Rigoletto paraphrase and the second of the three concert studies as well, making this an extremely well filled disc indeed.

Things start off with the well-known “Rigoletto” paraphrase. This piece is so well known and often played and recorded that it has become rather a standard for pianists to play. This however is a super version, with the lightness in the right hand in the latter half of the piece being of special note. It takes a super performance such as this to blow away the cobwebs on such a hackneyed piece. As an aside, Liszt’s paraphrase on “Ernani” (which was published as part of the same three Verdi paraphrases by Liszt and given the designation S432 in Searle’s catalogue) deserves to be better known and is only a little longer than the much more famous “Rigoletto” piece.

Then we get to the main event on the disc, the Douze études d’exécution transcendente. The first is dispatched with aplomb in fractionally under a minute. I particularly like the legato phrasing in the middle of the piece, something which I have not often heard in performances and it works very well here. Then follows the un-named A minor etude, here it is refreshing to hear the melody in the left hand so clearly. This means that the musical argument and development is really easy to follow – a marvellous performance of a very difficult etude. Paysage (landscape) follows and is a much more peaceful affair all beautifully phrased and played. The central faster section (around 3 minutes in) is very well controlled and winds down nicely before peace returns for the remainder of the work. The 4th of these etudes is the marvellous Mazeppa which sets off, rather appropriately, at a gallop. I find this the most complex of the etudes as it is full of technical difficulties – none of which present any problems for Mr. Giltburg. There is some really swashbuckling pianism going on here, especially in the opening and closing noisier parts of the work. The middle section – a variation on the main theme in B flat major rather than D minor – is superlative and all the accents in the score are pointed up very well. The ending is suitably rousing and heroic.

Next is the much more elusive Feux Follets, which is all about quick repeated notes and lightness of playing. Again, no fingers are put wrong and the work is taken at the right pace to hear all the detail in the left hand which can sometimes be lost. The piece evaporates very effectively into the ether at the end. Etude no. 6, Vision, is rather a weird piece. It starts off serious and dark before launching into torrents of octaves. I really like the way he contrasts the opening phrases with the quieter material about one minute in. Again this is something which I’ve not often heard. Interestingly, in the closing pages of the piece, Giltburg uses Liszt’s ossia alternative solutions which is quite unusual. These work just as well as the usual notation and it’s a pleasure to play spot the difference! I really like the 7th Etude, Eroica. I feel it is one of the wittiest and most amusing works of the set. Here the humour really shines through in a magnificent performance. Etude no. 8, Wilde Jagd, is spoken about in the notes as a depiction of a horde of supernatural hunters passing by and this seems appropriate here as it sets off at a dash. The central section is much more peaceful but still contains a vast number of notes that need to be played quietly rather than loudly and this is very well done here. The relative calm doesn’t last long however, as the piece ends noisily collapsing into the bass registers of the piano. The 9th of these etudes, Ricordanza, was described by Busoni as “a bundle of faded love letters” and this seems very appropriate for the longest and most beautiful of the whole set. This performance is spot on, no inflections are omitted and the whole thing is amazing. Mr Giltburg’s excellent singing tone is especially prevalent about 5’20’’ when the chords in the base are subservient to the tune in the right hand creating a split level effect. After this brief outburst, things quieten down and peace is restored. The piece ends very quietly and wonderfully.

In case you’d dozed off during no. 9, the 10th of the set (which lacks a title) sets off at a fast pace – initially Allegro agitato molto but later adding appassionato into the mix. Again here, the left hand is particularly prevalent and this really does help understand what is going on. As elsewhere on this disc, the pianism throughout is breath-taking and everything is as it should be. The last chord of the piece comes as a surprise – my score says ff for the last dozen or so bars but here Mr. Giltburg turns the volume right down and this works very effectively as a conclusion to the piece. Things calm down again for Harmonies du Soir, the penultimate work of the set. I think this piece is particularly interesting as despite the difficulties, there is a need for the pianist to play very quietly in places and maintain an atmosphere of calm throughout to hold the piece together. This is here perfectly achieved. The opening is very evocative and leads perfectly to the main theme, which starts around at three minutes and is exquisitely played. The ends of phrases in the reflective middle section are cut slightly short and not held (as often happens) meaning that there isn’t any blurring and everything comes across very clearly and cleanly. I think this is down to very, very good control of the pedal, again showing what a super pianist he is. Despite several moments of loud passagework in the central part of this piece, things slowly quieten down and it ends in an atmosphere of serenity with some gorgeous singing playing. The 12th and last of the set is entitled Chasse Neige and is full of tremelandos, leaps and chromatic passages, all of which combine to make a fitting conclusion to these studies. As elsewhere, the performance is excellent and the interpretation is spot on. I think this is my favourite of the set and was actually the first piece from the disc that I heard – early one morning on the way to work on BBC Radio 3 some months ago. Even though I only caught half of it, it made me stop and wonder who the pianist was to the point that I had to sit in the car and wait for the piece to finish. As with the ending of no.10, Mr. Giltburg reduces the volume hugely for the final chords and, as before, this is very effective in this work.

After the terrors of the 12th etude, as an encore we have the middle piece of the 3 Concert studies, La Leggierzza – loosely translated as “lightness” – that dates from four years before the Douze études d’exécution transcendente and is the second best known of the set (after the 3rd and final one in D flat – Un Sospiroso). As the title suggests here, there is a lot of light passagework for the right hand to negotiate, all perfectly performed. The accuracy and precision of the chromatic runs are superb. The ending of the piece is interesting in that it finishes with a quiet series of chords. My only minor complaint here is that the disc wasn’t long enough to fit the other two etudes from this particular set, as I would really like to hear how he plays those pieces too.

To sum up, this is a super recording of the Douze études d’exécution transcendente and the other works on this disc. It is one that I shall be returning to often. The interpretations are interesting and point up details, which are perhaps more elusive on other recordings. The clarity of the recording and also the purity with which Giltburg plays are marvellous and no details are lost or fudged. As you can gather from this review, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this CD. I will now have to go and investigate this brilliant pianist’s other recordings as well.

Jonathan Welsh

Previous review: Robert Cummings



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