Boris Giltburg on Rachmaninov's Études-Tableaux

Israeli pianist Boris Giltburg's recent recording of Rachmaninov's 1916 Études-Tableaux was BBC Music Magazine Instrumental Choice in August. Here, he reflects on what makes this set of works so special. 

Boris Giltburg on Rachmaninov's Études-Tableaux
Pianist Boris Giltburg

A slow growl in the deepest reaches of the keyboard. Another one, a little faster, closer. A snap of sharp teeth. And then the frightened, light-fingered, hasty flight of the girl, trying to escape. That’s the beginning of the Étude-tableau Op. 39, No. 6, "inspired by images of Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf", as Rachmaninov himself wrote—but his version is no straight retelling. Having passed through the prism of his imagination, it’s scarier, darker, more ambiguous.

And it isn’t only that the wolf wins in the end. At the beginning of the middle section, the wolves (for there are several of them now) seem to be stalking their prey, slowly advancing in anticipation of the vicious hunt to follow. Those wolves, however, are represented by the motif of Red Riding Hood herself, transposed down to the wolves’ register—as if she were pursued not by wolves, but by doppelgängers, twisted, nightmarish copies of herself. To me that’s real psychological horror. And what does it mean then, that the piece does indeed close with the wolf’s growl and final snap?

Just as dark is the étude that follows, No. 7, which is also coloured by a deep sorrow. It begins with a slow, fragmented funeral march, interspersed with laments and the sound of a singing choir off-stage, which then leads to the middle section, a monotone, measured beat—for me it’s the implacable ticking of a clock, while Rachmaninov wrote he had imagined there "an incessant, hopeless drizzle". Above it there appears a long, winding melody. A prolonged build-up culminates in an earshattering peal of bells, which subsides and brings back the opening march and lament. The incessant beat quietly continues underneath, then pauses; resumes; pauses again; resumes, and finally stops for good.

For me, these, and the other études-tableaux constituting Op. 39 are many things simultaneously. Short stories; captivating, meticulously crafted to trim all excess, yet having enough material to lead us into fully believable worlds. Movies, with accomplished cinematography and lighting (wouldn’t the Red Riding Hood étude-tableau make a great short film?). Tone paintings, with Rachmaninov utilizing a huge breadth of piano techniques and textures, weaving multiple voices, melodies and harmonies into a rich aural tapestry. And perhaps also dreams, in the way they come with a tangible, distilled atmosphere and mood, created right away, by the very first notes of each piece; similar to those of our dreams that come with a strong emotional association, one which requires no grounds or explanation—we just know.

I realize the list above does not include the first word of the cycle’s title—études. The technical difficulties of many of these nine are apparent, but in my opinion, nowhere in piano literature does the term ‘étude’—study—have as little meaning as when discussing Rachmaninov’s Études-tableaux. The weight of the other elements—the emotional, the storytelling, the world-creating and atmosphere-building—is so great, that the technical difficulties are almost an inconvenience we impatiently want to overcome in order to gain access to the material underneath.

The other part of the cycle’s title, tableaux—paintings—is fascinating. Viewing a painting usually means first experiencing it as a whole—our initial encounter—and only then absorbing the details. It is a single, unified thing. Though music, existing in time, cannot provide a direct equivalent, I feel that the after-image the Études-tableaux leave behind is of the same monolithic quality as that of a single painting. This might have to do with the pieces’ dream-like quality of creating an immediate, strong atmosphere and maintaining it until the end. The fact that time is added to it only makes it stronger, letting a story unfold, which in a painting could only be suggested by a single frozen moment, leaving all the preceding or following ones to the imagination of the viewer.

Rachmaninov also brings to a dizzying height music’s innate ability to operate on multiple levels. All of the elements—the scene, the mood, the emotion, the story, the sound—are presented to us simultaneously. A nature scene is never just a nature scene. The second étude depicts, according to Rachmaninov, the sea and seagulls but it is also imbued with a gentle sadness throughout, reaching an almost heartbreaking outburst towards the end. For me, the opening of No. 5 depicts stern, sheer cliffs above a leaden stormy sea; awe-inspiring in both their magnificence and their indifference—but those waves then rise to engulf the cliffs, resulting in climaxes of such emotional power that any barrier between the music and the listener is shattered, and even as a performer one is in danger of being fully overcome.

Interestingly, if seen as a whole, the cycle is contained within a relatively narrow emotional range—it mostly occupies the darker, deeper, sadder regions of the emotional spectrum. There’s no joy (even the marching No. 9 is not truly joyous, just triumphant), not much humour, no real relaxation. And yet within those boundaries Rachmaninov paints a very large variety of subtle shades—the troubled, unsettled turbulence of No. 1 is so close to, and yet worlds apart from the fight and proud defiance of No. 3—to say nothing of the artless narrative with which No. 3 ends (I keep imagining an abandoned village, with just a memory of conflict remaining—and, in the very last bars, shutters flapping in the wind). The gentle but deep and inconsolable grief of No. 2 feels very different from the warmer, autumnal sadness of No. 8. These are all personal impressions, of course—but performing the cycle in its entirety always feels emotionally full and varied, and this, jointly with the other elements described above, makes the performing experience an exhilarating delight.

Boris Giltburg's recording of Rachmaninov's Études-tableaux was Instrumental Choice in the August issue of BBC Music Magazine. To hear an extract from the disc, click here.


  • Article Type: | Blog |
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