Ahead of solo piano recital at St John’s Smith Square this Thursday, Yulia Chaplina talks to Boris Giltburg, a Russian/Israeli pianist who won First Prize at the Queen Elisabeth Competition (2013).

Boris Giltburg. Photo by Oliver Binns


Yulia Chaplina: How did it all start for you? When did you decide to become a classical pianist?

Boris Giltburg: I come from a family of musicians, and we always had a piano at home. At the age of five it seemed obvious to me that the piano was there for me to play it, and I boldly asked my mum to teach me. She said, no! Too many pianists in the family, she said, and I should be doing something else. But I was as stubborn as any 5-year-old who wants something and can’t get it, and after 2St John’s Smith Squareweeks of badgering, mum finally agreed to give me lessons. It wasn’t a decision, it was more of unstoppable curiosity. I also tried the violin for 3 months, but that went really badly; whereas with piano I felt at home from day 1.

Yulia Chaplina: What is the most challenging in being a classical pianist? What is most enjoyable?

Boris Giltburg: The most challenging thing is, I think, not unique to classical pianists – it’s making sure you do your utmost every single day, whether in performance or in practising. Falling back on old preparation or old habits is not going to work: you must critically re-examine everything before every new performance. The most enjoyable is a special feeling during a concert: a kind of floating, when your brain disengages or splits in two. One (small) part is alert and following the music, and perhaps directs the musical flow a little bit, the other (much larger) part is completely sunk into the music, experiencing it in a kind of visceral, instinctive way which precludes logical thinking and seems wired directly to your deepest feelings, without any buffers or defenses. These are usually the best kind of concerts. They leave you exhilarated, drained, often bewildered – but that’s entirely worth it.

Yulia Chaplina: Do you have any special routines before concerts?

Boris Giltburg:  Nope. I used to have, but gradually all the rituals disappeared, and now it’s just about getting to know the hall and the piano on the day of performance, practising, and basically, continuing the preparation work up until the moment you go on stage. (Eating and sleeping well are helpful too!)

Yulia Chaplina: What are your sources of inspiration?

Boris Giltburg:  Mostly the music itself – working on the scores you get glimpses of incredible worlds which composers have outlined or mapped in their scores, and which you are exploring. Practising is not at all just about the technical work; it’s rather a process of discovery of composer’s ideas and thoughts through the score. I find it endlessly fascinating – those ‘worlds’ can be about emotion, colour, image, sense of space, narrative – it varies wildly from composer to composer and from piece to piece. Trying to recreate those worlds, or bring them to life during a performance is probably the main aim of an interpreter, and having this almost-direct access to a composer mind is profoundly insisting.

Yulia Chaplina: You are playing all 32 Sonatas & Concerti by Beethoven, why is Beethoven special for you?

Boris Giltburg:  I should perhaps explain that I’m not playing all the sonatas, as much as learning and filming them. It’s a year-long project, which started as a personal exploration, driven by curiosity, and strong love of the (nine) Beethoven sonatas I had already played, and just as strong a wish to discover the other (23!) sonatas I hadn’t yet played. What I couldn’t foresee, is how deeply I was going to fall in love with the music. The first seven sonatas which we filmed over the last few weeks were completely new to me, and I can hardly recall being so happy working on new repertoire. All seven radiate life, alertness, musical purpose. Their inventive richness; Beethoven’s quest for depth, poetry and beauty, right from Op. 2 No. 1; his humour, his explosiveness, the searing power of his emotions, the sheer visceral physicality of the way he handles the piano – I feel I’ve had the incredible privilege of making closer acquaintance with a composer I thought I had known all my life, but who turned out to be so much more than my image of him. Every sonata seems to add several extra facets to that image; this makes opening each new score that much more exciting. If you’d like to follow the project, all sonatas and blog posts are released on beethoven32.com, as well as on Apple Music.

Boris Giltburg. Photo by Sasha Gusov

Yulia Chaplina: How many times have you been to London? What is your favourite area or landmark? Will you have any time to enjoy the city?

Boris Giltburg: Many many times, since my first visit here at the age of 12. It’s one of the most exciting cities I know, and there’s never enough time to see all the exhibitions and plays I would love to. My main hobby is photography, and for that too, London is tremendous.


The young Moscow-born, Israeli pianist is lauded across the globe as a deeply sensitive, insightful and compelling interpreter. Critics have praised his “singing line, variety of touch and broad dynamic palette capable of great surges of energy” (Washington Post) as well as his impassioned, narrative-driven approach to performance: “the interplay of spiritual calm and emphatic engagement is gripping, and one could not wish for a more illuminating, lyrical or more richly phrased interpretation”(Suddeutsche Zeitung). At home in repertoire ranging from Beethoven to Shostakovich, in recent years he has been increasingly recognized as a leading interpreter of Rachmaninov: “His originality stems from a convergence of heart and mind, served by immaculate technique and motivated by a deep and abiding love for one of the 20th century’s greatest composer-pianists.” (Gramophone). Read more.