Boris Giltburg; Philharmonia / Pletnev

Borodin; Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 2; Dvořàk 'New World' Symphony

Royal Festival Hall, 29 November 2007 4 stars

Boris Giltburg (Photo: Erich Richmond)Under the tight control of Mikhail Pletnev, the Philharmonia dished up a programme of traditional fare for a dank November evening. Starting with Borodin's In the Steppes of Central Asia, we moved on to Rachmaninov's ever-popular Piano Concerto No.2, with Boris Giltburg a forthright soloist, and finished with a virile, sinewy and fast rendition of Dvořàk's 'New World' Symphony.

I've never been a great fan of Borodin's orchestral music. In common with much of the symphonic work of his fellow Russian nationalists, it sometimes fails to subject its beautiful musical themes to enough in the way of interesting development. His In the Steppes of Central Asia is no exception, relying upon picturesque musical imagery and folk tunes, with minimal development. However, at less then ten minutes long it never becomes overly repetitive and, as here, can be a very pleasant curtain raiser. Pletnev's reading was admirably straightforward, bringing out the most of the melodic writing and giving us a taster of the fine brass playing that would be a feature of the whole evening.

The programme tells us that the American Record Guide has likened Boris Giltburg, still only in his early twenties, to 'a young Richter'. Although that's slightly overstating the case, there's no denying the fact that he is a very fine pianist. After the glittering box of tricks paraded before the festival hall audience at Lang Lang's recital earlier in the week, it was something of a relief to hear – and see – a pianist with a formidable, if not quite so dazzling, technique allied to honest, instinctive and genuinely heart-felt musicianship.

He drew out the concerto's opening chords of with patience before launching into his accompaniment of the big string theme. Although his filigree work didn't sparkle, it was constantly well defined and strong and he had a good ear for the details of Rachmaninov's contrapuntal writing. There was an admirable discipline to the first movement, which Pletnev and Giltburg both kept on something of a tight leash, although the climaxes still registered effectively. Worryingly, the piano didn't sound in quite tip top condition – it had, after all, received a considerable work-out at Lang Lang's hands earlier in the week – and some of the more high lying lyrical passages were affected.

Giltburg additionally sometimes failed to produce the requisite lightness of touch. I couldn't tell whether this was the instrument's or pianist's fault, but it meant that some of the Adagio sostenuto was not as poetic as it might have been. However, his sense of rubato was thoroughly idiomatic and highly musical and the orchestra breathed their long phrases with similar sensitivity, especially the muted violins in their big themes. Giltburg sank gratifyingly into his big chords at the movement's final, sleepy climax beautifully before unleashing a muscular flourish to herald the finale. Performed at a considerable lick, it provided a technical test for the pianist who rose easily to the challenge. Gradually building up to a wonderfully executed final climax – Pletnev marshalling his brass players particularly well – it brought a thoroughly satisfying performance of this old war-horse to a close. Giltburg's stage manner – he seemed genuinely pleased to be there and to have elicited so enthusiastic a response from the audience – was endearing and he charmed us further with a fluid, nicely turned account of Rachmaninov's Liebesleid transcription.

Dvořàk is not really a composer that one would readily associate with Mikhail Pletnev but the no-nonsense, unsentimental approach he brought to his best-known symphony made for an exciting, classically nimble performance. The opening was earnestly dramatic before he launched headlong into the Allegro molto. The movement was taken at a rollicking gallop, although he had no qualms about slowing to admire the view in the more lyrical passages. The famous Largo was again was swifter than usual, but this made for a flowing rather than lugubrious performance, with a very appealing flexibility of tempo.

As in the first movement, the intensifiers applied to the tempo indications in the third and fourth were taken at face value: the scherzo, really was molto vivace and the final Allegro was definitely con fuoco. As so often the case with Pletnev, though, this fire had a focussed intensity, even if the brass were a little overeager in the final bars. The fast speeds held no fear for the agile Philharmonia who played thrillingly throughout. This was far from a traditional, Romantic view of this work, but it came across well in this athletic, powerful and visceral reading.   

By Hugo Shirley