Every year, hundreds of young virtuosi slog it out in competitions hoping to catch the ears of agents, A&R people and concert management.Those exceptional enough to forge a career face the pressure of standing out in a crowded field while dodging sniping critics. As recreative interpreters they walk a tightrope – be praised for letting the music speak for itself and a snarky writer will damn you as a bland anonymity, take the risk of putting your stamp too firmly and they scream “mannered affectation”.

Boris Giltburg’s previous recordings copped flak for verging on the latter so, as I’m usually happy to indulge such sins, this latest whetted my interest. He certainly has the transcendental chops; a technical facility that allows him the freedom to mould, shape and colour on a whim.

His Mazeppa starts a little tamely but builds to a gobsmacking feat of stamina – the ‘con strepito’ passage, the chords hammered out staccatissimo, an ear-tickling treat – the din of clattering hooves. Feux Follets is lovely in its restraint and poise, less flash and dazzle than usual. He whips Wilde Jagd into a fine frenzy but his tendency to wilfully change gear plays havoc with its narrative arc.

Unfortunately, the mannerisms outweigh the moments of insight, despite the beautiful touch and staggering pianism. Giltburg’s tendency to suddenly pull back before a climactic chord or randomly underline an inner voice saps the momentum and dramatic shape. Such delights as Ricordanza and Harmonies du Soir are exquisitely coloured, exploiting a magnificent Fazioli piano, but tend to ramble along with too vague a sense of dramatic shape. Preludio, Fusées and Appassionato immediately irritated with little tics and pouts, quirky voicings and annoying rhythmic distortions – likewise Eroica, while Vision was impressively massive but lumbering. Chasse-neige has some spectacularly beautiful moments but the climax is more hailstorm than snow. I’d accept such posturing if it made dramatic sense, but interspersed with a lack of convincing rhetorical gesture the result is curiously enervating.

The disc kicks off with the Rigoletto Paraphrase; some extraordinary pianism dazzles but he declines to shape or colour those glorious Verdi melodies as a singer might – listen to Jorge Bolet’s ecstatic vocalising to hear what’s missing. The concluding La Leggierezza is lovely but affected. I wanted to appreciate Giltburg’s Liszt on his terms, but the lack of tension and dramatic point makes the remarkable virtuosity surprisingly ho-hum.


Composer: Liszt
Composition: Transcendental Études, Rigoletto Paraphrase, La Leggierezza
Performer: Boris Giltburg p
Catalogue Number: Naxos 8573981