Boris Giltburg was one of the must-see performers of this year’s Cheltenham Music Festival, having won the prestigious Queen Elisabeth Competition for pianists back in June. The hall at the Pittville Pump Room was packed full of anticipation for this renowned pianist.

Boris Giltburg © Chris Gloag
Boris Giltburg
© Chris Gloag

Giltburg played a challenging programme of music by 19th-century Romantic composers: this was not a light concert for its morning slot. This programme sandwiched two shorter pieces between two longer ones: it opened with Schumann’s Carnaval Op. 9, followed by Prokofiev’s Sonata no. 3; and after the interval he played Rachmaninov’s Étude-tableau in C minor, Op. 39 no. 7, before concluding with Liszt’s Sonata in B minor. It wasn’t the programme that Giltburg originally intended to perform: he was supposed to play something completely different, themed around the waltz. This new programme was definitely not as originally planned, but the Festival Director Meurig Bowen came on stage to explain the changes to the event, and the reason for the two pianos on stage. Giltburg performed on a Fazioli piano specially brought up from London for him to try out in a concert environment for this morning performance. Whilst the shiny, brand new grand piano took centre stage, a rather sad-looking Steinway was cast to one side. The piano had a wonderful sound. It wasn’t as mellow as the Steinway, and towards the top of the keyboard it was noticeably bright – this may have been something to do with the piano being new, and not adjusted to the environment of the concert venue.

Boris Giltburg is an unusual pianist to watch. He has long fingers and an expressive face, and he almost managed to fold himself into the piano in the quieter passages. The curve of his back was unlike any other pianist I have seen, as he switched between leaning back and bending himself forward. Despite his body language at the piano, his technique is elegant. He played the notes with an acute ear for each little melody, no matter how subtle, even when all ten fingers were being used. It was almost as though his fingers each had a sound-balancer built in. His performance was intuitive and, as a result, sensitive in nature. Giltburg was captivating to watch and executed every technique with a sense of accomplishment and finesse.

The highlight of the performance was the Liszt’s Sonata in B minor. Giltburg really captured the range of extremities in the piece and made clear in his performance that silence played an important function, in particular in the opening Lento assai section. This built up the suspense to the Grandioso theme that later appears in the piece. Despite being one of the longer pieces of the performance, it was the most engaging and the most diverse in terms of technique and style, challenging Giltburg as a performer. The way that Liszt changes the mood of the opening theme completely at the end was captured in Giltburg’s stance at the piano. His posture altered from being curved over the keyboard to leaning back with a smile on his face.

At the beginning of the concert, in the Schumann, Giltburg had seemed very introverted; rather than playing the quiet notes out, he kept them closed in. This changed over the course of the concert, and it felt as though by the end he was more confident. Despite the introversion of his Schumann performance, though, these musical sketches still sounded technically effortless to Giltburg.

As if the concert hadn’t been fulfilling enough, Giltburg spoilt the audience to two encores of Rachmaninov. It was clear that this was a composer close to the Russian-born Giltburg’s heart. The second encore came after his fourth return to the stage and was a little unexpected as the enthusiastic applause had trailed off a little, but was still utterly welcomed. His impressive technique, combined with his passion for the more romantic pieces, made a great concert.