When first announced this programme was framed by the Ravel pieces. In the event Prokofiev’s Sixth Sonata came first. Not so much a way to start a concert as to detonate it into life. The opening is fortissimo, sure, but this was very loud and aggressive indeed. It’s called a “War Sonata” in the West, but the artist is not meant to declare war against his Fazioli. Things grew, if not calmer, then more proportionate with the subsequent movements, not least the third whose slow waltz earned the work its place on this programme. The finale’s recall of that first movement’s opening theme was not purged of its aggression, but its assertion now contributed to a strikingly powerful account of the coda. Giltburg seemed to be blowing hard at the end of his ordeal.

Boris Giltburg
© Wigmore Hall

Schumann’s Carnaval has its combative side too, of course, stylised at the very end into a March of the League of David against the Philistines. Before that we encounter various Commedia dell’arte figures, and some real ones such as Chopin and Paganini, each of whom were splendidly characterised by Giltburg in an interpretation of great affection, whose rhythmic élan acknowledged that dance forms are present here too. The Philistines stood no chance once this Davidsbündler launched its closing campaign with irresistible verve, producing by far the biggest cheer of the evening.

Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales does not distinguish much between those two adjectives, since there is abundant sentiment and nobility throughout, certainly in Giltburg’s hands. His lilting way with the rhythms – and indeed the frequent tricky counter-rhythms – lifted the music off the page and into a glittering fin de siècle ballroom. Though the ballroom empties for the quiet Epilogue, Giltburg’s poetic reminiscences of earlier dances, ghosting through the hazy texture with exquisite languor, ensured the memory would abide.

This 1911 work had another ‘epilogue’ in La Valse of 1920 – a decade that saw the world transformed, and Ravel’s sensibilities with it. The Viennese dance becomes a sort of terminal Totentanz, a vision of a world of which the waltz was a hedonistic symbol, has collapsed. Written for a large virtuoso orchestra, the composer himself reduced its teeming complexity to a very difficult piano solo – it is not uncommon to find “complete” live or recorded surveys of Ravel’s piano music which simply omit it. But it held no terrors for Giltburg, whose brilliance allowed him to manage the awkward leaps, cross-rhythms and countermelodies divided between the hands, all while maintaining momentum. If asked the inevitable “what did you do with eighteen months of lockdown, Boris?” he replied “practised La Valse”, no-one there would have been surprised.

After the world had danced to its doom, a glowingly tender Brahms Intermezzo in A major was perfect balm, while Rachmaninov’s Prelude in G sharp minor, with its glinting keyboard shadow-play, was quietly elusive enough to discourage further clamour for encores. The pianist had played quite enough notes in his demanding programme. Of the three great masters looking down from Elysium, it was perhaps the fastidious Frenchman who had the broadest smile. It is good news that Giltburg is to continue his Ravel series at Wigmore Hall, with further dates in March and June.