Jayson Gillham, 26, Australia/U.K.
Jayson Gillham had tamed his hair since his picture was taken and somehow the curly mop was missed. But his more conservative haircut looked quite sharp with his dark suit. He sported a red shirt and tie, so he stood out in a sea of more conservatively colored shirts. He is currently living in London to pursue a master’s degree at the Royal Academy of Music, but returns frequently to his native Australia to perform.
He started out with Bach’s Toccata in G Major, BWV 916, giving it a more historically accurate performance but not as strictly observed as some other competitors. He found a happy medium between using the resources of the modern piano without too much distortion to Bach’s original concept for his more limited instruments. Specifically, there were times when he played a phrase loudly and then played its response softly—in the manner of a two-manual harpsichord with one soft and the other loud. The effect was marvelous. His finger legato in the slow section was also impressive. The fugue had great clarity and you could hear all of the voices. He took a jaunty tempo and enjoyed the performance as much as we did.
Since I was not very familiar with the Ligeti, the études came as a pleasant surprise. He played Études II: Cordes à vide (open strings), Étude VI: Automne à Varsovie (Autumn in Warsaw) and Étude X: Der Zauberlehrling (Sorcerer’s Apprentice). All three were studies in sonorities, with the sustaining pedal held down. Gillham played the passages in such a manner to allow them to meld into each other, creating new harmonies. Some were fading while new notes were added, so the harmonies were constantly in flux.
Chopin’s talent was best suited to smaller works but he wrote a number of larger-scale sonatas and two concerti. His Sonata No. 3 in B Minor, op. 58 is overtly formal in structure, which many scholars think was done to prove to his critics that he could. Whatever the reason, this sonata is very well-constructed but can often sound labored in performance. Not so here, as Gillham brought out the music in his thoughtful performance. There is some disagreement about the tempo of the trio in the scherzi (some think it should be double-time), but Gillham made a good case for taking it slowly and the ending was pure magic.
He took a moment to let that hand hang in the air before charging into the extremely difficult finale. He took it fast and gave it a full sound where required, but didn’t overplay. He launched the descending scales like missiles. The audience loved it.
Eric Zuber, 28, USA
The American pianist Eric Zuber entered in a dark suit. He was wearing a white shirt that was set off with an elegant gray (maybe mauve) four-in-hand tie, which is less visually distracting than black. His many credits include being a finalist and prizewinner at nine international piano competitions, including the Arthur Rubinstein, Bösendorfer, Cleveland, Dublin and Honens. He is currently pursuing a doctoral degree at the Peabody Institute.
He opened with Mozart’s Rondo in A minor, K 511. While this is a fine piece on its own, it was probably not the best selection for an opening gambit at a competition, because it is long and repetitious. However, it allowed him to show off his ability to sustain a long singing line and keep the accompaniment in its place within the texture.
He certainly made up for lost time with his performance of all of Chopin’s 12 Études, Op. 10. We heard a trip through another book of Chopin études before and this set is just as big an endurance challenge. Each of these was designed to tackle one particular technical skill. Although not intended to be played one right after the other, they are wonderful to hear in this way. It is easy to identify the skill (fast octaves, singing lines, rolled chords, etc) and then you can admire Zuber’s mastery of technique, one skill at a time.
All of them were played with near perfection. In some, such as no. 8, he overused the pedal, which added a blurry effect. However, he gave the entire set a fine performance, ripping into the last one at a breakneck speed. The audience gave him a big ovation.
Alexey Chernov, 30, Russia
The Russian pianist Alexey Chernov was last to play in this set. At 30, he is at the upper age for the competition, and has a fine career already. He has won prizes at more than 20 piano competitions: first prize at the 2012 International Competition for Piano and Orchestra in Cantù, Italy; second prize at the 2011 Cleveland International Piano Competition; and fifth prize at the XIV International Tchaikovsky Competition that same year.
He wore a standard tux and took a while to get settled at the piano. So did the audience, for that matter, since they were coming off a short break. Once we all quieted, he made an assertive start to Bach’s Toccata in G Minor, BWV 915. Sitting upright, he frequently bowed his head to see the keyboard. No other pianist sits this way; they usually lean more from the waist. However, it does allow him to keep his arm position constant. The downside is that he looks like he might be nodding off.
Chernov played the opening very freely, with lots of pedal, but once he got into the main body of the piece, he played with modified and modernized—but still historically accurate—performance practice. The fugue was especially noteworthy for the clarity of the lines and the excitement he created.
Scriabin’s Three Études, op. 65, was another selection that seemed to merge into one piece. There were passages that required fast-moving, augmented octaves and other technical hurdles that Chernov played with fervor. Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit received a stunning, but subtle, performance by one of the youngest players in the competition; and here, one of the oldest gave the piece a bold and brilliant reading. You would think that this would be just the opposite.
Gaspard, after all is a showpiece, hidden in a musical masterpiece and designed by Ravel to be as difficult as he could make it. He succeeded in that this is one of these mountains that you need to surmount before calling yourself a pianist. It is obviously a signature piece for Chernov and he was completely at home in it, from the first note to the final flourish.
He started too loud but kept the rippling rhythm constant throughout. He also brought out the melody lines in such a subtle manner that they rose up from the watery mists as they were played. The second movement, Le Gibet, was eerie. The bell that rings throughout was much more present than in the previous performance, which had it ringing from far off. It was more appropriate to hear it sounding nearby, as Chernov did. The last movement, Scarbo, was a wild ride in Chernov’s hands. The nasty little imp was clearly depicted and the dreaded run in seconds flashed up the keyboard. He took it very fast and kept the tension at just under boiling the whole way. This was a performance that maximized the drama and was full of surprises.