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Jayson Gillham: Bach and the Romantics

by Glenn Riddle

Australian pianist Jayson Gillham has been on the radar of local music lovers for over a decade now, but it was his success at the Montreal International Piano Competition in 2014 that launched his international career, one which on the evidence of his “Bach and the Romantics” themed recital at the Melbourne Recital Centre continues to flourish in an upward trajectory – something that is not always the case with competition laureates.

Fresh from an acclaimed cycle of the complete Beethoven Piano Concertos with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra under the stewardship of their equally youthful Principal Conductor, Nicholas Carter, (live performances that will soon be released on ABC Classics), Gillham attracted a sizeable and enthusiastic audience to Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, enthralling them with an eclectic program of less familiar original works by Bach and Schumann, complemented by popular virtuoso transcriptions by three of the great pianist/composers: Rachmaninoff, Busoni and of course, Franz Liszt.

The first half of the recital centred around Bach, opening with Rachmaninoff’s masterly transcription of the Prélude from the German Kapellmeister’s Solo Violin Partita in E major. The sparkling clarity of Gillham’s articulation was evident from the outset, before culminating in an imposing climax that was decidedly more Russian Romantic than German Baroque, for that indeed is what the music called for. Gillham’s mastery of intricate contrapuntal textures came to the fore in the ensuing Fantasia and Fugue in A minor where unerring clarity of line sustained interest, while the music propelled the listener towards a rich-toned climax.

By contrast, Gillham’s nuanced tonal refinement was perfectly suited to Egon Petri’s multi-hued arrangement of the popular Sheep May Safely Graze. Richly ornamented pathos was a feature of the six-movement Capriccio “on the Departure of a Beloved Brother”, one of Bach’s few autobiographical works, a youthful programmatic composition which marks Johann Jacob Bach’s engagement as oboist in the army of Charles II of Sweden. The opening half concluded with a towering reading of the vast Romantic canvas that is Ferruccio Busoni’s arrangement of Bach’s violin chef d’oeuvre, the mighty Chaconne from the D minor Solo Partita.

After interval Gillham entered authentic Romantic repertoire with Schumann’s Waldszenen, a late masterwork that recalls in many respects the intimate lyricism of the much earlier, and better known, Kinderszenen. Here Gillham perfectly captured the delicate fragility of the wispy Bird as Prophet, the undoubted gem of the cycle, before delving into the bucolic joviality of Hunting Song and the melancholic lyricism of the concluding Farewell.

Gillham made light of the unrelenting virtuosity of the rapid-fire double octave frenzy that is Liszt’s arrangement of Schubert’s lied The Erlking. This was very much the storm before the calm as Gillham entered into the broadly-paced poetry of Liszt’s arrangement of Schubert’s agonizingly lyrical Der Müller und der Bach. A slightly unsettled reading of Liszt’s transcription of Schumann’s Widmung ensued, before Gillham regained his musical footing with a spell-binding Frühlingsnacht that brought the recital to a satisfying close.

Gillham is certainly one of Australia’s finest pianists, young or otherwise, and those keen to hear him again can return to the MRC on August 7 when he performs with singers Nicole Car and Étienne Dupuis in a recital consisting primarily of French chansons.

As I’ve mentioned before in previous reviews, this most enjoyable of recitals would only have been enhanced – in the absence of detailed program notes – by informative, even if brief, introductions to each of the works by the performer. Gillham has truckloads of musical personality and stage presence. Building a personal connection with his audience via illuminating forewords, whether scholarly or anecdotal, would only have added to the audience’s musical engagement.


Glenn Riddle reviewed Jayson Gillham’s piano recital “Bach and the Romantics” given at the Melbourne Recital Centre, Elisabeth Murdoch Hall as part of the MRC’s “Piano Series” on June 17, 2019.

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