Gramophone places pianist Boris Giltburg “among the truly memorable Rachmaninoff interpreters, an elect including Moiseiwitsch, Horowitz, Kappel, Richter and Cliburn. Giltburg’s originality stems from a convergence of heart and mind, served by immaculate technique and motivated by a deep and abiding love for one of the 20th century’s greatest composer-pianists.”
Preview Talk with Alan Chapman included!
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Stravinsky had the star-making “Firebird” behind him and the epoch-launching “Rite of Spring” in front of him when he composed the ballet “Petrushka.” Its scene is a Russian carnival, the main characters a trio of puppets. The vibrant colors of the instrumentation, the bustling harmonies and rustic dances capture it all unmistakably, in one of the composer’s most engaging fancies.
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Preview Talk with Alan Chapman
BEN GERNON • CONDUCTOR
BORIS GILTBURG • PIANO
Sergei Prokofiev (1891–1953)
Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873–1943)
Concerto No. 2 in C Minor for Piano & Orchestra, Op. 18
I N T E R M I S S I O N
Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971)
Petrushka (1947 version)
Tableau 1: The Shrovetide Fair
The Shrovetide Fair
The Charlatan’s Booth
Tableau 2: Petrushka’s Room
Tableau 3: The Moor’s Room
The Moor’s Room
Dance of the Ballerina
Waltz: The Moor and the Ballerina
Tableau 4: The Shrovetide Fair, near evening
The Shrovetide Fair (evening)
Wet Nurses’ Dance
Peasant with Bear
Jovial Merchant and Gypsy Girls
Dance of the Coachmen Masqueraders
The Scuffle: The Moor and Petrushka
The Death of Petrushka
Police and the Charlatan
Apparition of Petrushka’s Double
The 2017-18 season piano soloists are generously sponsored by The Michelle F. Rohé Distinguished Pianists Fund.
The Thursday night concert is generously sponsored by Symphony 100.
Russian Overture, Op. 72
SERGEI PROKOFIEV ( 1891 – 1953 )
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon; 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba; timpani; 4 percussion; 2 harps; piano; strings
Performance time: 14 minutes
Many of the overtures we encounter in the concert hall were originally intended to introduce a staged drama—as George Bernard Shaw reminds us, to make us impatient for the curtain to rise. But as a matter of form, an overture can be just about anything, and Prokofiev’s Russian Overture is longer, meatier and more exciting than most. By contrast, Shostakovich’s Festive Overture, written about 18 years later, is almost whimsical.
Prokofiev was one of the 20th century’s great symphonists, and his five piano concertos comprise perhaps the greatest single group of 20th-century concertos for a single instrument. But it is his gift for narrative that listeners in the West have found most compelling: his ballet scores, his operas, and his popular children’s suite Peter and the Wolf.
The symphonies of his compatriot Shostakovich are better known here, but Prokofiev, too, had his problems with Soviet cultural policies. He had been traveling extensively in the West and living as an expatriate, mainly in Paris, from 1918 through the mid 1930s. This kind of cosmopolitanism was always suspicious to Soviet authorities.
His position in the forefront of modern music conferred prestige on the state, but the government’s feelings about his reputation were not unmixed. It seems clear that he knew the cultural apparatchiks would be pleased by the Overture’s unambiguous appeal. He composed it in 1936, when he returned to Moscow and hunkered down under the Communist yoke.
What to Listen For
The Overture is almost symphonic in its heft—Prokofiev produced two performing editions, both calling for a large orchestra—and combines elements of Prokofiev’s symphonic and narrative writing.
There are no pauses, but the extended introduction is almost like a first movement that proceeds in dialectical fashion, alternating between loud and soft, fast and slow. The deliberative middle section builds to a hugely dramatic and satisfying finale in the manner of a large-scale symphony. The writer Nelly Kravetz reports this wonderful description of preparations for the 1936 premiere in Moscow, which she in turn gleaned from a source close to Eugen Szenkar, who conducted:
Present in the hall were the conductor’s wife, Prokofiev himself, and the most important member of the Szenkar family, Blackie, their pedigree two-year-old Scottish Terrier, who had “a marvelous ear for music.”
Blackie was all attention, ears cocked, eyes fixed on the conductor. The last bars of the piece, performed by trombones and trumpets were somewhat atonal and were too much for Blackie, brought up on Bach and Beethoven, and he burst into howls of despair. The orchestra, the conductor and the composer roared with laughter and Prokofiev declared he would have to alter the ending. But Mr. Szenkar doesn’t divulge whether he actually did.
---The USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra Gennady Rozhdestvensky
Video: 13 minutes
Piano Concerto No. 2
SERGEI RACHMANINOFF ( 1873 – 1943)
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons; 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba; timpani; 2 percussion; strings
Performance time: 33 minutes
It’s odd to remember that Rachmaninoff was ever Californian, or indeed to think of him as anything but Russian. Yet Stravinsky, who also lived here, was among those who suggested to Rachmaninoff that the California sun might improve his outlook as well as his health.
It was a good idea that seems not to have worked; during the dark days of World War II, about four decades after composing his Piano Concerto No. 2, Rachmaninoff moved here, becoming Stravinsky’s neighbor and touring the U.S with this concerto and other virtuoso showpieces. He died in Beverly Hills in 1943.
In recent years, musicological research and digital re-interpretation of historic piano rolls and recordings have brought renewed interest in Rachmaninoff’s abilities as a pianist. Was he one of the greatest keyboard artists of all time?
Listening to the prodigious technical demands of the infamously difficult “Rocky 2,” it’s easy to understand why many people think so, and how his physical traits supported his playing: large, long-fingered hands with a huge digit span, an equally large dynamic range encompassing minutely subtle shadings, and a gift for the surging, sculptural contours of late romantic melodies. Though he excelled as an interpreter of other composers, his own second piano concerto is perhaps the ultimate showcase for his particular combination of assets.
Its aural effects are spectacular, requiring power and speed in abundance, blinding dexterity, the ability to delineate multiple voices, and the control to express broad, shifting gradations in tempo and dynamics. Through all of that, Rachmaninoff requires the pianist to spin a silken cocoon of sound that is voluptuous and quintessentially romantic.
Rachmaninoff was essentially a figure of the 20th century, the last of the Russian Romantics. But his sound was rooted in the late 1800s and in the Russian nationalist composers dating back to Glinka and Tchaikovsky. Trained as a pianist as well as a composer in Moscow and St. Petersburg, Rachmaninoff focused on the piano in composition as well as performance; of his three concertos, the Concerto No. 2 is both the most popular and the most critically admired.
The concerto’s success was hard-won. Composed between the autumn of 1900 and the spring of 1901, the Concerto No. 2 followed by three years the dismal reception of Rachmaninoff ’s First Symphony, which proved a setback to his musical ambitions (despite the admiration it has earned in our own day).
Always subject to clinical depression, the well-born Rachmaninoff benefited from both assiduous medical care and rededication to piano composition in working to free himself from a creative stasis that remains one of the most notorious cases of “composer’s block” in music history following the critical failure of his Symphony No. 1.
Dr. Nikolai Dahl, 1917
Even more extraordinary was the medical intervention that enabled Rachmaninoff to break through his creative malaise when his closest friends and relations engaged Nikolai Dahl, a physician specializing the treatment of addictions, to help him. The concerto, the glorious result of months of intensive therapy, was dedicated to Dr. Dahl.
What to Listen For
One can hear the brooding depressive as well as the ardent romantic throughout the concerto. In the first movement, marked moderato and written in C minor, an opening of intense foreboding builds through a series of powerful chiming chords in the piano. As the tension builds to a breaking point, the piano’s simulated chiming rolls into a sweeping main theme that is taken up in the violins but quickly engulfs the entire orchestra.
From this moment on—indeed, from the very opening bars, with the piano’s lone voice—the concerto announces itself as a hugely scaled musical statement that balances sweeping, melancholy phrases with romantic melodies. Throughout the concerto we hear both the chilly breadth of the Russian outdoors and a moody interior landscape.
When a rolling theme emerges, its march tempo gives it the quality of an inexorable machine, with only the solo piano to challenge it. Slow chords in the strings open the second movement, an adagio that moves from C minor into E major.
While the piano delineates a theme through fleet, poetic arpeggios, the overall mood remains melancholy, with a short exchange between orchestra and piano developing the movement’s motifs. Yet this tinge of sadness does not overwhelm—perhaps because of the sense of romance and melodic richness that pervades the whole concerto.
Its songful quality, which gave rise to two Frank Sinatra tunes based on just the first movement (“I Think of You” and “Ever and Forever”), takes full flight in the lush, gorgeous third movement, marked allegro scherzando.
This movement is built around a melody that is like the distilled essence of romance, and that forms the basis of the song “Full Moon and Empty Arms.” It has been quoted in dozens of movies to convey the exquisite pleasure of love anticipated … and the exquisite pain of love unfulfilled.
It can also be said to have saved Rachmaninoff ’s life: when he composed this melody and discussed it with colleagues, it secured his more optimistic outlook on his composing prospects.
Photo of Marilyn Monroe and Tom Ewell in Seven Year Itch from the September 1955 issue of Screenland Plus TV-Land magazine
This is the theme that turned Brief Encounter into a three-handkerchief weepy, and that prompted Marilyn Monroe to tell Tom Ewell, “Every time I hear it I go to pieces!” in The Seven Year Itch.
The concerto ends in a flourish of virtuosity and optimism. The last movement, an allegro, opens with an introduction that moves away from the previous movement’s E major, where the music was lush but the emotions lingered in an atmosphere of twilit moodiness.
To close, it moves from C minor to C major with ever-increasing tension and energy. The final thematic statements and coda are resolved in C major, in a loud and ecstatic finale.
---Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto no.2 op.18 - Anna Fedorova - Complete Live Concert - HD
Video 38 minutes
Petrushka (1947 version)
IGOR STRAVINSKY ( 1882–1971)
Instrumentation: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets (3rd doubling bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, contrabassoon; 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba; timpani; 3 percussion; harp; 2 keyboards (celeste, piano); strings
Performance time: 34 minutes
Since late in the last millennium, your intrepid annotator has been insisting that Igor Stravinsky’s place in music history is due for re-evaluation. If we hold out for another millennium, this contention might be proven correct. Not that anyone has ever doubted Stravinsky’s greatness, least of all the composer himself.
For most of his life, Igor Stravinsky was the most famous composer in the world, a musical supernova whose dominance was comparable to that of Picasso in art. His great early ballet scores, including the original Petrushka ballet, played a key role in establishing his reputation.
The well-born Stravinsky had received much of his musical education through private instruction.
He began composing ballet scores when he was 24, an age when most ambitious young composers were years beyond conservatory, hoping to attract favorable attention from the music world. That was just what he wanted as well, and though he had published almost nothing of consequence, he was the private pupil and esteemed protégé of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who recognized his promise.
Stravinsky’s association with Rimsky-Korsakov was a credential by itself, but the young composer had no major commissions on his docket. That made him especially receptive to a suggestion from his mentor for an opera based on an enchanting tale from Hans Christian Andersen, Le rossignol.
But after a year’s work, an improbable series of coincidences brought Stravinsky the commission for The Firebird, his breakthrough ballet for Serge Diaghilev’s prestigious Ballets Russes, and he set Le rossignol aside.
Suddenly, Stravinsky was in a hothouse of international talent; the Ballets Russes’ dancers included Vaslav Nijinsky and Bronislava Nijinska, its settings and costumes were designed by such artists as Pablo Picasso and Leon Bakst, and its productions embodied all the artistic richness and ferment of Paris in the Art Deco era preceding World War I. With characteristic boldness, Diaghilev had given Stravinsky this assignment based on a single hearing of two early, brief scores: the Scherzo fantastique and Feu d’artifice.
Stravinsky, sketched by Picasso, date 31/12/20
The gamble paid off handsomely for both men, and its success made composer’s reputation overnight, launching a transformative musical journey that continued with Petrushka and the epoch-making Sacre du printemps.
What to Listen For
Composed in 1910 and 1911, Petrushka was one of a number of scores that Stravinsky revised in 1947, by which time critics considered it a “youthful” work. When we consider the circumstances of the original composition, it can seem like a puzzling change of the style we hear in Le rossignol, Scherzo Fantastique and Feu d’artifice.
To understand the sound of these early ballets, we must imagine how a Russian or European listener might have heard them. In the U.S., the ballet tradition is most associated with ethereal grace, beauty and fantasy. But the romantic stories of enchantment and magic have always been viewed as darker and more serious on the other side of the Atlantic.
In the countries where ballet reached its maturity, woodland sprites and the ghosts of betrayed lovers were accepted as symbols of unpredictable, implacable fate, and of evil as a presence in human life.
If we look at the story of Petrushka, it bears some resemblance to the familiar tale of Pinocchio, the fibbing toy that longed to be a real boy. But the music of Petrushka tells us a different, far more serious tale that is definitely not kids’ stuff. The title character is a puppet who recurs across Europe: Punch in England, Pulcinella in Italy, Polchinelle in France, Kasperle in Germany.
Portrait of Vaslav Nijinsky, head bent and resting upon his right shoulder in the title role of Petrouchka.
He’s a combination of bully and victim who often resorts to trickery and violence to get his way, but comes to a pathetic end. In this case his story is told in four dramatic scenes, starting when he is brought to life by the puppetmaster Charlatan at the Shrovetide fair.
Petrushka falls in love with the ballerina puppet; she rejects him in favor of another animated puppet, the dashing Moor, who slays him. When his spirit rises after his death, he again sees his rival’s triumph and endures a kind of second death. Where was the line between life and death? Was the petty Petrushka somehow ennobled by love and pursuit? Was it worth it?
What we hear is a swirling mixture of giddiness and melancholy that captures the forced gaiety of the amusement park, with its somber, melancholy undertones. The music and the story put us in mind not of Petrushka’s fate, but of our own, and of every instance when we’ve felt the pangs of envy or jealousy, or the desire for revenge.
---Stravinsky Petrushka (1947 version) – London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Simon Rattle. Video 38 minutes.
Who but Stravinsky could make tawdriness sound so elegant?
Michael Clive is a cultural reporter living in the Litchfield Hills of Connecticut. He is program annotator for Pacific Symphony and Louisiana Philharmonic, and editor-in- chief for The Santa Fe Opera.
Credit: Simon Annand
Meet The Conductor!
Ben Gernon first attracted international attention when he won the Nestlé and Salzburg Festival Young Conductor’s Award in 2013 following a unanimous decision by the jury led by Ingo Metzmacher, and soon after became a Dudamel Fellow with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Since this time he has conducted extensively across the UK, Europe, Japan and the USA and has been praised repeatedly for his effortless authority on the podium, his drive and command of the orchestra and his incisive, heart-felt and evocative interpretations. In 2013, BBC Music Magazine featured him as their “Rising Star: Great artist of tomorrow”.
A favorite already of many UK orchestras, Gernon has worked with the London Symphony, London Philharmonic, Philharmonia Orchestra, Scottish Chamber, Royal Philharmonic and all the BBC orchestras, and continues to work regularly with the City of Birmingham Symphony, BBC Philharmonic, BBC Scottish, Royal Scottish National Orchestra, amongst others.
He has conducted two BBC Proms, one in 2012 in a composer portrait of Tansy Davies and in 2014 on the occasion of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’s 80th birthday. In Europe he has conducted the Camerata Salzburg, Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, Luxembourg Philharmonic, Hamburg Symphony and Lausanne Chamber Orchestra, the Stuttgart Staatstheater Orchestra and Swedish Radio Symphony.
As a Dudamel Fellow with the LA Philharmonic in 2013–14, Gernon assisted on a variety of projects and conducted their Symphonies for Schools concerts in multi-media enhanced performances of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 1 and the Nutcracker Suite. In summer 2016, Gernon had two major U.S. debuts at the Hollywood Bowl with the LAPO and with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the Ravinia Festival, when he conducted a rich and varied program of Britten, Debussy and Stravinsky’s Firebird, which was accompanied by a newly created production by the Handspring Puppet Company (creators of the legendary stage production of War Horse).
Following his debut with Milwaukee Symphony in 2015–16 he also made an immediate return there in the following season. Further afield, Gernon has conducted the New Japan and Nagoya Philharmonic orchestras and the National Philhamonic of Russia.
A keen opera conductor, Gernon conducted a specially crafted arrangement of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail with the Young Singers Academy at the Salzburg Festival to critical acclaim; he assisted Jakub Hrusa in Carmen at Glyndebourne and made his debut with Glyndebourne Touring Opera in Don Giovanni and Stuttgart Opera in The Marriage of Figaro.
Gernon studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama with Sian Edwards, with whom he still works closely, and with Sir Colin Davis, who was a profoundly influential figure in Gernon’s musical development.
Credit: Sasha Gusov
Meet The Artist
Boris Giltburg has appeared with many leading orchestras such as the Philharmonia Orchestra, Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, NHK Symphony, DSO Berlin, Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, St Petersburg Philharmonic and Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. He made his BBC Proms debut in 2010, his Australia debut last season (with the Adelaide and Tasmanian Symphony orchestras) and has frequently toured to South America and China, also touring Germany with the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse. He has played recitals in leading venues such as Hamburg Elbphilharmonie, Carnegie Hall, Southbank Centre, Louvre and Concertgebouw.
This season, Giltburg is resident artist in Brussels at both Flagey & Bozar, performing in recital and with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie and Paavo Järvi and Brussels Philharmonic and Stéphane Denève; he is also artist in residence in The Hague with the Residentie Orkest under Nicholas Collon, with whom he appears at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw.
In North America he plays for the first time with Pacific Symphony and Ben Gernon, Utah Symphony and Thierry Fischer and NAC Ottawa Alexander Shelley. Engagements in the UK include his debut with the Hallé Orchestra and returns to the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, City of Birmingham Symphony and Bournemouth Symphony orchestras. Recital appearances this season include the Southbank Centre’s International Piano Series, Radio France, Bilbao Philharmonic Society, and Liszt Raiding Festival. He also tours Europe with the Pavel Haas Quartet, and was featured on their acclaimed 2017 Supraphon Dvořák quintets release.
In 2017 Naxos released Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Carlos Miguel Prieto, coupled with the Études-Tableaux Op. 33. This followed Giltburg’s first concerto release which won him a Diapason d’Or for the Shostakovich concertos with Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, coupled with his own arrangement of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8. His Schumann, Beethoven and Rachmaninoff solo discs for Naxos have been similarly well received.
His 2012 Orchid release of the Prokofiev Sonatas was shortlisted for the critics’ award at the Classical Brits, and was closely followed by a Romantic sonatas disc (Rachmaninoff, Liszt, Grieg).
Born in 1984 in Moscow, Giltburg moved to Tel Aviv at an early age, studying with his mother and then with Arie Vardi. He went on to win numerous awards, most recently the second (and audience) prize at the Rubinstein in 2011, and in 2013 he won first prize at the Queen Elisabeth Competition, catapulting his career to a new level. In 2015 he began a long-term recording plan with Naxos Records.
Giltburg is an avid amateur photographer and blogger, writing about classical music for a non- specialist audience.