Boris Giltburg - a gifted pianist on the verge of an outstanding career

PUBLISHED: 10:16 12 January 2009 | UPDATED: 15:47 07 September 2010

BY MICHAEL WHITE There hasn t been much point in wishing people a Happy New Year during the past week or so – given that no-one seems to expect the next 12 months to bring anything more than abject misery to us all. But for those in need of refuge from the general prospec

There hasn't been much point in wishing people a Happy New Year during the past week or so - given that no-one seems to expect the next 12 months to bring anything more than abject misery to us all.

But for those in need of refuge from the general prospect of doom, perhaps I could suggest an hour in the company of the young pianist Boris Giltburg.

The Russian-Israeli positively radiated optimism (it comes easier when you're only 24) when I met him recently at the new Kings Place concert halls - and with good reason. Because for Giltburg, 2009 actually looks like being a good year.

Recently singled out by the BBC Music Magazine as one of "Tomorrow's Greats", he shows every sign of being poised on the edge of a truly outstanding career.

He's spent the past few years of his life picking up some of the world's leading piano prizes, including first prize at the heavyweight Santander Piano Competition in Spain.

He's been taken on by EMI, with an extremely well-received debut recording of Russian repertory.

Solo engagements with major orchestras are pouring in. Here in Britain, he's been virtually adopted by the Philharmonia Orchestra, resident at the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank, which gave him three concerto dates last year and have booked him again to play on Thursday January 22.

For someone who only left university a year and a half ago, this isn't bad going.

So isn't he worried that it might all be going too fast?

"Well, if anything I'd like it to go a bit faster," he says with a shy if slightly toothy smile.

"Of course, it's not something I can directly influence. I just approach every concert as the most important I've ever done and devote myself completely

to it.

"But I feel ready to commit to more things - to learn more repertory. And although it's a bit intimidating to be playing at the Berlin Philharmonie, the Amsterdam Concergebouw, the Festival Hall and all these famous places, I don't get nervous. I've never been nervous.

"On the contrary, I'm always curious, always looking forward to the new experience. I guess I just love playing, which is why I want to play more."

Giltburg's love of playing began early - as the child of a mother, grandmother and great-grandmother who were all pianists. With a pedigree like that, resistance was useless. Although, as he tells the story, there was no urge to resist in the first place.

"My mother taught me from the age of five and I enjoyed it. It was what I wanted, my choice.

"Maybe there was a time, about 11 or 12, when I wasn't so keen to do the five, six, seven hours of practice every day. But it passed.

"As I got older, it was eight or nine hours a day - and it really wasn't a problem. I liked to study. I still do."

So did those hours of practice undermine his childhood?

"No, I had a very normal upbringing.To start with at least, I went to an ordinary school, had friends, played games.

"The only thing that made any difference was that, when I was five, we moved from one country to another. But I was very young, so I adapted quickly. It wasn't a problem."

The change of country was from Russia, where he had been born in Moscow, to Israel, where the Giltburg family settled just outside Tel Aviv.

"It was the time when suddenly it became possible to leave the Soviet Union and there was a great wave of immigration to Israel," he explains.

"In Moscow, there was still quite a lot of anti-semitism. I was coming up for school and my parents were worried, so we left. And I grew up Israeli, which I'm happy to be."

Isn't life there somewhat tense these days?

"Of course we have problems - but it's not as outsiders think. It's less complicated and less dangerous than the TV makes it look. And I personally have no desire to live anywhere else, even with my career growing in Europe.

"All the time I'm travelling back and forwards. But when I fly in at night and see the lights of the shoreline, it makes me very happy. I'm coming home. And that's what it is - my home."

Not Russia?

"Well, I feel a strong connection to the culture and certainly the music. Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Scriabin, Prokofiev - this is very much at the heart of my performing repertory.

"But the country, no. I've only played in Russia once - 2004 in St Petersburg - and I felt a total stranger there. I expected to feel at home, but didn't."

Even as a stranger, however, he has absorbed something of the great Russian keyboard tradition as exemplified by Richter, Rubinstein and Gilels - pianists he admires for what he identifies as their sincerity.

"They weren't passive observers, these great figures, they left their mark on what they played.

"But neither did they make themselves the centre of their performance. The music came first - and this is what I try to do.

"I don't force an interpretation on the notes. I may approach them differently to other people - but I don't aim to be different. I aim to enjoy what the composer has written and bring out what this music is in itself."

So far, he has a repertoire of 23 concertos - all of which he's played in public. But for the current season there are four new ones - Scriabin, Tchaikovsky's 3rd, Beethoven's 1st and Rachmaninov's 1st. And he plans to delve further into Mozart.

"Mozart I've played very little up to now, because of the special difficulties of this music that can look simple on the page but is actually hard. Not many pianists play Mozart well, and I've been putting him off. But now I'm keen to start.

"He's on my list for 2009 and I know it's going to be one of the things I really enjoy exploring this year."

But meanwhile, he still has plenty of dates with the Russians to keep him going - not least his forthcoming Tchaikovsky night at the South Bank, when he tackles one of the biggest warhorses in the whole concerto repertory.

"The 1st Concerto has true grandeur. But you know, the rest of his piano music doesn't have this. The scale is smaller and so are the ideas, the emotions - which is one of my regrets about Tchaikovsky.

"The orchestral music is so wonderful but the piano music, apart from this one concerto, so lacking."

There's a certain irony in the way the slightly-built and boyish Giltburg leans toward the bigger, heavier scores - especially Rachmaninov whose concertos he finds more challenging than Tchaikovsky.

"Notoriously, Rachmaninov requires big hands with a wide stretch and Giltburg's hands don't strike you as quite large enough to cope. But he insists they can, opening out his fingers for me to prove the point.

"You see, it's not so big, but I can manage," he says with another of those shy smiles that front a winning combination of eager innocence and iron will.

Of all the rising young pianists I've ever met (and there have been a few), I've rarely come across one so engagingly determined or so well equipped to succeed.

And that makes two reasons why I strongly suspect that whatever rubbish 2009 brings the rest of us, for Boris Giltburg it will be standing ovations all the way.

Boris Giltburg plays Tchaikovsky's 1st Piano Concerto at the Royal Festival Hall, South Bank, on Thursday January 22 at 7.30pm. For tickets, call 0871 663 2509.

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