An Interview with Boris Giltburg: Part I

Vantage Music | Hong Kong | January 2023

In January this year, pianist Boris Giltburg was in Hong Kong for a solo piano concert. Vantage had the opportunity to have a conversation with Boris. The published interview is divided into two parts, with the first one published here on the pianist’s thoughts on Beethoven’s sonatas. The second part, with focus on the life of Boris as a professional musician, will be included in the next issue of the magazine.

C: How did the idea to record and film all of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas come about?

B: As you probably remember, 2020 was the big Beethoven year before it became the pandemic year, and I really wanted a big Beethoven project for this year and was thinking of various options, and then suddenly I had this idea, and this idea came from a previous collaboration with a film-maker in London whose name is Stuart French, and he had a project, a company, that was called Fly-on-the-Wall, and his idea was to do unedited filming of classical musicians. He did it with a hand-held ESLR microphone, one light – a very strong concert hall light – and the idea was that you can do as many takes as you want – per movement – but in the end you have to choose. One take, and that is the take, so no splicing, no editing. And we did several things together: we started when he was just building up the project, we did small pieces: we did some Prokofiev pieces, some Rachmaninov pieces, Liszt; and then later we did a longer all-night project when we filmed the complete cycle of Études-Tableaux op. 39. I was working with him for two or three years on and off, and our biggest project until the Beethoven was the Études-Tableaux, which we did in one night, so we started at 10 at night. The idea of the project came from creative constraints, so these films were usually done in showrooms or places where you couldn’t really film at night, or that didn’t look so photogenic during the day, so you could only film at night, and with the darkness and this one strong light he managed to create a very cinematic and filmic effect. Then I hit upon the idea of doing the entire Beethoven cycle like this as an online project. The thing was that, until this project, I had only played nine Beethoven sonatas, so it wasn’t just filming, it was learning and filming.

C: I read your blog and you said you learnt the first few of them in about 10 days.

B: For the first four I had a bit more time – we started filming in December and I started learning them in October, but then for op. 10, I had literally nine days.

C: In nine days, three op. 10s!

B: I was obsessed! I was obsessed with Beethoven because, for me, the earliest sonata that I had played before was the “Pathétique”, so the first seven were completely new discoveries, and that was part of the excitement of the project, this personal discovery of Beethoven, essentially, because until then I had known only the tips of the icebergs. That led me to change my approach because when I saw how much I had discovered musically, and also personally, about Beethoven, by doing the entire cycle, then you get not just the tip but all the underlying connections.

C: That is something I would like to talk about.

B: So that was how they came about. So, this was how the Beethoven project was, so we filmed every movement like this.

C: The Beethoven performing tradition is a rich one. Schnabel was the first to record the cycle, and then pianists like Backhaus, Kempff and Arrau in the last century, and many more since then. It is getting ever more challenging to offer your own rendition after more than a hundred years of this recording tradition. What is your view of this?

B: That is a question that I often get asked about any piece; for example, Rachmaninov – there are so many recordings. The way I think about this is almost… separate: the recording is in a way a love letter from us to the piece and to the composer, and it speaks at least as much about the personal relationship we have with that piece of music, because recording is like the utmost, is the most focused, concentrated attention and love that you can give to a piece, because it is like a bright spotlight that shines on a piece, and you leave no stone unturned, no border unexamined. So, in a way, it is not so much thinking, “What am I going to do that is different?” but more, “I love this music, I want to dedicate myself to it, and I am going to do this also through the medium of recording.” And there is another thing: you mentioned Schnabel, Kempff, Arrau and so on; Gilels, another one whom I love. And they are all different, and all of their nuances are also different, and somehow, despite the fact that there are many, they are still different, and I think one of the reasons is that we all inevitably let the music pass through us because in the end we cannot disappear completely; there is still something of us – our personality – so it means that each one of these cycles, as well as each of the recordings of Rachmaninov, it has a little bit of the performer. And I think, especially at the highest level, we talk of Arrau, Schnabel and Gilels. For a listener it is more like: with whom do I want to spend two hours in the company of? Do I want to be in the company of Gilels? Do I want to be in the company of Arthur Rubinstein, playing beautifully, maybe not in the same German style, if you like? And then you spend time with that recording, and it’s a little bit like spending time with the performer.

C: So, it’s a very personal thing.

B: I think it’s a personal thing, and for me in particular, and I see it also very much in Vasily Petrenko: this strong desire to strip away all the traditions, as it were, and just go to the score.

C: And then it’s your relationship with Beethoven.

B: With Beethoven. If someone asks you why did you do this, you say because this is in the score and this is how I understand it, not because there is a tradition of many decades.

C: So which edition do you use?

B: That, by the way, is a more interesting question. I use both the new Bärenreiter edition of Jonathan Del Mar and the new Henle edition of Perahia, which is still incomplete – they are still publishing, but they are both superb editions, superbly annotated with insightful prefaces and commentaries, and what I found fascinating is realising how many open questions there are in Beethoven sonatas; for example, sonatas where we don’t have a manuscript, so we have to rely on several different first editions and how to resolve the inconsistencies between them, and sometimes even with manuscripts there are still some…

C: I have heard that the early sonatas were published when Beethoven was still alive.

B: It was Artaria who published the first ones until, I think, the “Pathétique”, if I remember correctly, but there, on the other hand, we don’t have the manuscript, and we don’t know to what extent Beethoven was involved in the proofreading of every one of them. Sometimes we have the engraver’s copy with Beethoven’s markings, sometimes we have lists of corrections, sometimes we have nothing, sometimes we have three first editions – French, Italian and German – and all of them are different, and then which one is the one? So, in the end, with these open questions no one can tell you what the answer is; they can only present you with all the options, and then you have to take a decision, but what I found fascinating were the arguments deployed, so both Bärenreiter and Henle will give you one option as the “default” in the “text”, and then the others will be the commentary, and then how they chose the one which is the “default” option; and so often they chose, if there were two options, they would choose differently…

C: … complementing each another…

B: It almost felt like there was some kind of dialogue between Henle and Bärenreiter, because they both then would write – especially there are a few famous controversies – and they would both deploy very convincing arguments for their default choice. I found it fascinating. I had never realised first how much work and thought goes into these editions, but also how much detective work there is in ink-dating and chemical analysis of paper. So, these were my two sources.

C: Regarding Beethoven’s work, Czerny is a very important figure as his comments are the most precise primary source regarding Beethoven, for example how fast pieces should be played as given by metronome markings. Many pianists have however commented that these seem to be too fast and even unplayable, especially in respect of first movements. What are your views on this? How do you choose your tempi?

B: Czerny, yes. I will very honestly tell you that I have not paid any attention to Czerny’s writings. I will just explain why: I really like Rachmaninov, who said: don’t listen to my recordings. Well, he said: even my recordings of my own pieces or my performances of my own pieces are already interpretations. So, they are not a source, they are already one step removed. So, even a composer has said that about his own music. And we also know from Czerny about metronome markings: he changed them during his lifetime; there are several editions with different metronome markings, so then what is the truth? Essentially, his opinion changed during his lifetime, but I would say that it is almost as valid as any informed musical opinion. And, in a way, the fact that he was a student of Beethoven maybe made him even less objective than someone else because he was so close to him. I remember when I was recording the concerto cycle with Vasily, and we did the Rondo, which is in B major, and there is the Czerny version, which is brilliant and really well written, and for my life I thought that this was Beethoven, but then when I realised that this was actually Czerny and that the Beethoven version was much more pared down… So, the one which Richter plays – there is a beautiful recording on YouTube – this is the Czerny version with all these figurations, this is all Czerny. And then you suddenly look at the changes and you think: would Beethoven have really written that exact turn and figuration? And then, at least for me, for the Rondo recording, I went back to the Beethoven version.

C: So, it is much simpler.

B: It’s much more in the style of the second concerto.

C: The last movement.

B: Exactly. So, I did write little cadences in the connecting passages, but within the keyboard range of Beethoven’s style so I only go up to F. Of course, there is also a choice. There is nothing that says that we have to play like Beethoven and write a cadenza… but, even when Beethoven wrote his cadenza for the second concerto, he already went way beyond the range of the second concerto’s keyboard, but that was Beethoven, and he had the right: it was his piece, and he could do what he wanted with it, and he could write a fugue for the beginning and so on. But I think, for me, I am not a composer, I don’t have that talent.

C: Don’t say that!

B: Well, no, I am an arranger. I have arranged two string quartets for piano – Shostakovich – and I can write a cadenza: I have written several cadenzas for Mozart, and when I recorded Concerto no. 0 I also wrote two cadenzas, but that is the extent of it, and I would always take a lead from the material in the concerto. But the reason I am saying that is that it’s interesting to read all these opinions, and even Schindler, whom we know told all these lies and fabrications, but it’s just interesting to read as a semi-contemporary account of people who knew Beethoven and wanted to present a certain view of him. But, I think, in the end, for me, it’s just the score that can have a real enforcing decision. That is probably the answer.

C: Here is an extract from your blog:

I realise now that what I’d love to emerge from this year is a kind of a dreamscape, shaped around the pillar of the sonatas cycle, born of an interaction of sound, word, emotion, and thought. Why dreamscape: Hesse wrote that music scores are frozen tone-dreams; but so are interpretations, since what we imagine, what we hear inside our heads while looking at a piece of music, can often be miles away from what our fingers are producing. And so, each performance is but a frozen (though fluid) snapshot of that dreamed-of interpretation, and much of the daily practising struggle is trying to bridge the divide between the two. And the dream-interpretation changes and morphs as well, as you yourself change with time and experience.

B: I remember writing this. I was in Brussels. I really struggled to write this because I was just playing all the five Beethoven concerti in concerts, and I was very, very emotional.

C: Five in five nights?

B: We played five in three nights, so it was no. 1 and no. 2, no. 3 and no. 4, and no. 5 with a symphony. That was the first time I had played the whole cycle in a concert format, and it was quite a moving experience, and it was a real immersion. That was during the Beethoven year, that was in February 2020.

C: So you learnt sonatas in between.

B: Exactly, so in the end, in a way, the fact that lockdowns happened, and all the concerts were cancelled, was really good for the project.

C: You mentioned the two worlds of how it sounds and how it is played now, I wonder what you would like to convey?

B: I think what I was trying to convey in this paragraph is that because of this Beethoven immersion which I was experiencing, it was almost like a kind of Beethoven trance, like not real clarity in my mind but just this really intense focus on Beethoven for months, and so I was having constant “Beethoven” thoughts, and I wanted somehow to connect between these thoughts and the filming, but also to put it in words, as I did in the blog. So, I think this is what I meant, in a sense, born of an interaction of sound, word, emotion, and thought, so the sound would be the recording, the word would be the blog…

C: So it is much more to do with the filming but not actually…

B: … not actually with the playing: the entirety of the playing is in the word “sound”, so that would be the sound, and the “emotion” is what I was experiencing in thought, this constant tornado of Beethoven thoughts that was constantly going on in my mind at the time. So, in the end, it was a different thing because what happened between then and later (apart from the pandemic) was that first Apple music took the video project, and then, quite soon afterwards, my label, Naxos, said we will also move on to release it as audio albums. And then, in a way, the accompanying text that I was writing for the sonatas became the sleeve notes for the albums. In the blogs, there are some 16,000 words, essentially an essay, which is my blog posts reworked into a long essay on the sonatas. But it also meant that my original idea of blogging – stream-of-consciousness blogging – that didn’t quite happen. It happened a few times during the year, but because also the year went in a very different direction since March 2020, and for months I couldn’t deal with Beethoven at all because I wanted comfort food, so I was playing only the pieces I knew well; I mean comfort food in terms of music. Because the excitement of the exploration was discovery of the new, but I think that when the pandemic happened, there was so much uncertainty – the ground was taken from under our feet – that what I really needed was stability and certainty and that I found in March, April, May and parts of June in old pieces, pieces that I had played since I was a teenager, so I didn’t learn any of the new sonatas until June.

C: Here is another extract from your blog:

Even though I had been playing Beethoven since I was a child, I feel I’ve only really started to discover him over the past months, as I embarked on a journey to learn and film all 32 sonatas over the course of 2020.

The last sonata was written in 1821–1822, so it covers a span of 27 years of his sonata writing, beginning with op. 2, no.1. If you had never heard any of the sonatas or played them before, from op. 2, no. 1, to op. 111, would you think of them as written by the same composer?

B: On just cursory listening, then no, but if you really listened, then yes, because I think the core of Beethoven stayed the same, and the core of Beethoven was something which I discovered for myself only during this project, because before the project I had this almost clichéd image: Beethoven with the stormy brow, with the bushy eyebrows, and the wavy hair, from the portraits, from the busts; and reading about him and also reading his letters, he had that side in him, but it was just one side, and actually, through the music, I think what is much more important is this feeling of a sense of life and light coming through the music, which I was really not aware of before I did the project, and I was very much aware of during the project, especially as it happened during the pandemic.

C: So you think there is consistency.

B: I would say that there is a core. If you compare the actual notes… I have always loved the comparison between op. 26 and op. 110. They are both in A major, and both of them are very poetic, but they are very poetic in their period; and to see how his expression of beauty, lyricism, and poetry in A major, what kind of transformation that underwent between op. 26 and op. 110, and the changes are huge.

You might know that at the time of Beethoven the word “genius” was not an adjective. You had “genius” but it was something that you had to work on, so it was something that you had to develop; it wasn’t something that you just had and then you were sorted! You were born with it, but just its raw material which you had to polish and develop and concentrate on. By itself it was a chunk of rock that might have some diamonds in it, but you need to polish them. So, though his constant work throughout these years, he just kept working on his own genius; and the transcendent late period, in all forms – in the ninth symphony, the Missa Solemnis, the last sonatas, and much more the late string quartets – that wouldn’t have existed without the middle period and the early period, at least that’s my opinion. I don’t think that you can get to that without going through something. So, yes, there is this immense journey, but I do think there is something uniting young Beethoven and older Beethoven.

C: I think there is something very meaningful about playing the whole cycle all the time, for this reason.

B: I love it! And I also really enjoy it! At first, I had a notion that there was another way to do it: starting with the sonatas I knew, and then going slowly through the sonatas I didn’t know, from maybe the easier ones to the more difficult ones. Instead, I did it in chronological order. And that was a choice for me for the project because what I wanted was to approach each sonata as thoroughly as I could, like Beethoven probably also approached writing them, like his last sonata, the last word that he had in the sonata genre. For example, op. 10, no. 1, is a small “Pathétique”, but this is unfair because he wrote it two and a half – or three – years before the “Pathétique”, so it is very unlikely that he knew that he was going to write the “Pathétique” when he wrote op. 10, no. 1, so what do we gain by comparing it to the “Pathétique”, apart from our vantage point of seeing the whole sequence? I find it much more interesting to explore: what is in op. 10, no. 1, which is wonderful and unique and beautiful, and, for example, to speak about this incredible slow movement, this static, tranquil serenity; you know, it is also in A major, but yet another very different approach; or this really unsettling Finale with this bizarre C major ending which somehow makes you feel really eerie and weird. So, for me, that is much more interesting than any comparison with the “Pathétique”. So that is why I wanted to do it in chronological order just to try and approach each sonata like that.

C: Did he write the modern sequence as it is known in chronological order?

B: Yes, apart from… and this is something I didn’t know… the two sonatas op. 49 were much earlier works: one of them should be no. 4 and one of them should be no. 8, I think. They were lying in a drawer, and one of the brothers found them and basically sold them without Beethoven knowing, though later, once Beethoven had found out, he was involved in the proofreading, but they were never really meant for publication, and they are definitely not part of the chronological sequence, but all the rest are.

C: How apart the earlier Bonn Sonatas, do you play them? Some people include the first three.

B: No I don’t play them. I did in the concerto cycle: I recorded no. 0, which is a little bit in the same category – slightly later, I think he was 12 when he wrote the Bonn Sonatas and 13 when he wrote Concerto no. 0. As mastery of the craft as a 13-year-old it’s amazing; in terms of depth, it is what it is: it’s like a Johann Christian Bach concerto, so very brilliant, extremely finger-breaking, very shallow. But the Finale is really catchy: you hear it once and like a pop song – it’s as catchy as a good pop song – it just gets stuck in your brain; and in the second movement, there are surprising moments of maturity which at first I was not expecting, but the Bonn Sonatas I have not played.

Something interesting, regarding the sonatas op. 2 and the trios op. 1. He took a good while to publish in Vienna. He first conquered Vienna as a pianist, as an improviser, and it took him a while to establish himself as a composer. He had written a lot or works before the trios and sonatas, but he specifically didn’t want them to have opus numbers, because, for him, to have an opus number would make a work part of his legacy. They didn’t reflect the Beethoven, which he wanted to remain for posterity. In a way, these earlier compositions were not seen by him as sufficiently refined.

C: You selected op. 110 for your recital. Is it your favourite?

B: It is one of my very favourite sonatas, just because of how many unique things happen there in 20 minutes. On the one hand, this beautiful simplicity in the first movement, where almost nothing dramatic happens, and yet you feel so uplifted. It is also physically demanding – so much of it is in the highest regions of the keyboard, and also how simple it is in terms of harmony – no stark romanticism – almost all of it is in diatonic harmonies. Then you have this short interlude with the little Scherzo, which is down-to-earth, grounded, and a bit dance-like – and very dreamy, like small slaps, then you have something real and concrete; and then this Finale, which is just out of this world. So, it has an Introduction – Recitativo with these 28 repeated A notes – who writes 28 repeated As and not just writes them as a gimmick, and instead writes emotionally intense music with 28 repeated As?

C: I wonder what was in his mind.

B: It is almost like a meditation on the note A for that one bar, just imagining this note, picking up on the decay, and then going up and decay, up and decay, and then to a climax and then decaying further – it is just incredible. And then from there you go to…

C: … to the fugue…

B: … before the fugue, there is the Arioso Dolente, which is one of the most personal and literally singing vocal lines that he has written, and then you go the first fugue, which is very objective, and it’s very straightforward almost as a fugue…

C: “Objective” as a term is somewhat ambiguous…

B: “Objective”, I mean, by comparison with the second fugue. I think that’s the plan of the movement: he presents this personal pain, and then his first answer to this pain is the first fugue, which is just this – this Apollonian beauty – I don’t think it is supposed to move you: you are supposed to admire it; you are supposed to behold it…

C: … with much dignity…

B: … yes, but then he reaches the climax, and then he goes to this G minor, and you feel just physically dead, and the energy draining from you; and then he repeats the Arioso half a step lower, and it’s fragmented…

C: … complete loneliness…

B: He’s just trying to bring himself to say things, but he can’t play three notes together in succession; there are these little pauses and gaps in the phrasing. It’s like his voice is breaking: it’s such a humanly understandable thing that we can write an emotional script.

C: It reminds me of the second movement of op. 10, no. 3.

B: Yes, yes, absolutely. So interesting. I find that to be one of the earliest real masterpieces in the genre.

C: I think it is one of the most beautiful things on the planet.

B: I agree. That, for me, is one of the journeys inside the cycle, is his ability to capture more and more realistic emotions.

C: Which had never happened before.

B: Not theatrical emotions that you show. Also, these theatrical emotions are very easy to describe, and you realise that they are that when you can say that this piece is happier, this piece is sad, but then try to describe – even op. 26 is already, for me, quite a step forward – try to really describe the theme: it’s lyrical, but it’s elegant, but it also has dignity, but it also has personal moments, and it is not one thing or the other, it becomes much more multi-faceted and complex, like real human emotions, and with every sonata, the emotions come closer and closer to the surface; they are much harder for us to describe in sleeve notes, but they are much easier for us to relate to.

C: It’s like a key to your heart…

B: … to your heart: it’s a key to a profound level. They are sometimes very simple notes to capture these…

C: … and then they actually match some of your emotions that you didn’t know to express.

B: Do you know this amazing story? Unfortunately, I don’t remember her name, but he had a female friend who suffered – I think her baby was born dead or died, and he invited her to come round and said, “Let’s talk”, and he sat down at the piano and improvised for her for two hours – that was his talking – and she wrote in her diary that she felt so consoled and hugged.

C: He’s so generous.

B: That, for me, is the real Beethoven, in a way. His way to express his emotions was not through words but through music. Returning to the story of the sonata: after the second fugue, when it ends “pom-pom-pom”, and then there is this completely unexpected G major chord, and then he repeats it again, and again, 10 times in a crescendo, as if he almost cannot believe that such light could come out of such pain, and then you keep the pedal down, and there is a mist of rising G major, and then from out of this comes the second fugue, which is the exact opposite of the first: the first is quite straightforward; the second one, first, is in inversion; then he uses double augmentation and diminution, so the motif is sometimes six times faster than the same motive in another voice; and then there is this continuous accelerando, where he gets to double the speed – doubling the note values – so play slower – so it just sounds like more accelerando, more accelerando, more accelerando – and then finally when the music returns to A major, there is such a sense of… do you know that it is the same theme as in the beginning of the first fugue, but passed through this sorrow, this pain, and he comes back with this life-reaffirming, triumphant… but honest triumph, not just theatrical triumph. I love op. 111 and op. 109 not less than that, and then there is the “Hammerklavier” and op. 101 with its amazing first movement, which, in terms of sheer poetry, there is nothing else for me!

Do you know that op. 101 has a very interesting story? Do you know the story of the “contra” A? So, the entire sonata was most likely inspired by the fact that his keyboard finally expanded a few notes in the bottom register. In his entire life, he was pushing for the keyboard to become bigger – he wanted more notes.

C: He thought in a very advanced way: the sound he had in his mind was the modern piano.

B: By that time – that is, 1817–1818 – he could not hear, or could only barely hear. So, his keyboard kept creeping upwards – he got a whole new octave, but he got nothing in the bottom register: the lowest note was still F. And then Thomas Broadwood, an English piano maker, promised him (he didn’t even have the piano) a new piano with three more notes – it would have the E, E, D, D, C, another three new white notes – before he started composing, and he got so excited! The entire sonata is an avoidance of A major. It starts in the dominant (E major), and then every time he gets to the tonic, either it is so soft that a proper cadence doesn’t register, and, when he can, he avoids it, and all this is, in my opinion, to create a sense of tension and build-up that you yearn for a resolution, and then the resolution finally comes at the end of the fugue in the middle of the Finale, where he introduces the theme in augmentation, and then we finally get a glorious A major. And we get a drone note – an E – which he had never had before, and the entire music is geared towards the use of this exotic note, and the reason why I think this is all true is because he insisted that “contra A” was printed in words in the score to make sure nobody thought it was a mistake. And in the manuscript we see him practising how to write this new note and how many leger lines to use – eight times – and in the manuscript he wrote “contra A” under every one of these! The publisher didn’t agree with him and only printed it once, but it just shows how important that one note was, like a rare ingredient in a dish, and he constructed the entire dish – like in a baking competition – around this exotic E note, but this resulted for us in one of the most amazing pieces he wrote!

Interviewed by Cindy Ho of Vantage Music and written by Ernest Robins. The second part, with focus on the life of Boris as a professional musician, will be included in the next issue of the magazine.