Boris Giltburg on performing Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2

Boris Giltburg takes us on a musical journey through one of the most exhilarating and intense works in the piano repertoire

Boris Giltburg on performing Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2
Pianist Boris Giltburg has released a recording of Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto on Naxos

Nothing beats the opening of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2. Brahms’s Second Concerto comes close, with its noble majesty and feeling of space, but Rachmaninov gave us pianists a treat: we start on our own. There is no need to maintain contact with anyone, you can be in your own world until the silent hall seems to have disappeared. You then let the first sombre, distant chord sound in the emptiness, and be answered by a low F, like the clapper of a giant bell beginning to ring. Seven more chords follow: slow, measured, each one implacably closer and louder. And finally, when the tension reaches an almost unbearable point, four heavy notes resolve into rolling arpeggios, and the way is paved for the entrance of the main theme.

The concerto's main theme is one of the most passionate, full-blooded, emotionally charged melodies anyone has ever written. Sitting at the piano, within reach of the first violins, the entrance of the orchestra is like a huge wave of sound crashing onstage. It’s a physical, visceral sensation, exhilarating and awe-inspiring all at once. The poor pianist is sometimes delegated to a silent movie role – the piano part is mostly written in the middle and lower register, and try as one might, it’s very hard to break through the sound of 36-40 string players playing in unison, fortissimo and con passione. But in reality we’re not poor at all; the music sweeps you up and – absorbed within its harmonies, climbing with the long line to the first climax, the first ‘point’ as Rachmaninov called those culminations – you feel like part of something much greater. It’s an exceptionally powerful experience.

And these are just the first three minutes, less than 10 per cent of the piece. Climaxes abound throughout, with the piano sometimes fighting for its life against the combined forces of the orchestra. The emotional intensity dial is almost constantly at maximum – though Rachmaninov’s emotions are always natural and genuine, and the fast sections contain more than enough muscle to allow for a lean and taut interpretation. Juxtaposed with these heights are numerous beautiful moments of respite, most strikingly in the second movement, but also the lyrical second theme of the first movement (finally the piano gets to play a melody too) and the slightly exotic second theme of the finale, which returns in triumphant splendour at the very end of the movement as the ‘point’ of the entire concerto, with a huge sound produced by all, a drenched pianist, and the roof in danger of falling down.

Speaking of the second movement, it’s a world of its own, protected both from the deep undercurrent of sorrow which runs through the first movement and from the extroversion and dazzling virtuosity of the finale – though there’s a taste of the latter at the end of the middle section, just before the main theme returns. The gradual brightening of chords at the very beginning seems to clear the afterimage of the darker first movement; they lead to unhurriedly flowing triplets on the piano, followed by a floating melody played first by the flute, then by the clarinet – for me it’s the gentleness and warmth of early sunbeams on the dew-covered grass before a summer’s day. The middle section introduces some emotional and technical turbulence, but things calm down, and the main theme is reprised by the strings. Rachmaninov knew so well what he was doing. I can’t think of a surer way to make the heart overflow than this reprise, combining the sweet sensation of homecoming with the lush, warm sound of the violins. Finally there’s a coda, which is pure fairy-tale music: the heroes of the story slowly recede into the distance of their ‘happily ever after’.   

It’s perhaps all too easy for us to relate the path which the concerto follows – from the passion, darkness and pain of the first movement, through the dreamy idyll of the second, and to the unequivocal victory at the finale’s end – with Rachmaninov’s own life story: his depression and inability to compose following the disastrous premiere of his First Symphony (ruined by an apparently drunken Glazunov on the conductor’s podium), his fight against it, and finally, his overcoming it with the help of a hypnotherapist, one Dr Dahl, to whom this concerto was dedicated. For the concerto was the very first work which Rachmaninov composed coming out of the three-year-long depression.

But then again, towards the end of his life, Rachmaninov said in an interview that when composing, he was only trying to make the music express simply and directly what was in his heart, so perhaps there is truth to such a reading. Whatever the case, the music is among the strongest works Rachmaninov ever composed, and I can’t help being tremendously thrilled before every performance, waiting to find myself in that silence, about to play its opening chord. 

Boris Giltburg's new recording of Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2, with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Carlos Miguel Prieto, is available on Naxos. For further information click here

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