Another day, another recent competition winner’s debut recital in Washington. This time it was Boris Giltburg, winner of this summer’s Queen Elisabeth Competition for piano, in a concert at the Phillips Collection on Sunday afternoon. The museum’s weekly concert series has an exclusive arrangement with Brussels to present each year’s winner, and the experience confirmed the technical authority and sheer muscular force that brought Giltburg the prize.
Giltburg was hardly an unknown quantity before this victory, already having recordings for EMI and Orchid Classics to his name. He is a steely player who tends to wallop rather than caress the keyboard. He brought the audience to its feet mostly with circus-like demonstrations of virtuosity in Prokofiev’s eighth sonata (Op. 84, B-flat major), especially the blockbuster finale, played with savage accuracy, and in the orchestral vastness of sound he produced in Ravel’s “La Valse.” Sections of both pieces that pose fewer technical challenges were played expressively, but in a generally predictable and less audacious way.
Rachmaninoff’s Op. 23 preludes featured many of the same qualities, hammered fortes in a wild tumult of notes in No. 2, overly soupy rubato in Nos. 4 and 10. The most telling sign of this interpretative weakness was in the three encores, all extensions of the waltz theme introduced by the Ravel piece. In Sibelius’s “Valse triste” and one of Schumann’s “Davidsbündlertänze,” where there were no technical marvels to distract the ear, the blandness of phrasing and uniformity of touch in Giltburg’s playing were laid bare. The only one that brought the audience back to its feet was Rachmaninoff’s A minor etude-tableau, “Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf,” again because of its bravura qualities more than its musical ones.
Downey is a freelance writer.