Jayson Gillham, 26, Australia/U.K.
Jayson Gillham made a bold move in programming Beethoven’s Sonata No. 21 in C Major, op. 53, subtitled “Waldstein” after Beethoven’s patron to whom it was dedicated. It is one of the composer’s most difficult works and is even a bigger challenge on a modern piano than it was on the instrument of Beethoven’s era. This is because of the octave glissandi in the coda, which are difficult to achieve on the stiffer action of today’s pianos. In fact, some editions have them fingered, although that is impossible at the required tempo. It would be fascinating to see someone try. However, Gillham did such a fine job with them that you wondered what all the fuss was about.
In fact, Gillham appeared to be enjoying the entire experience, and that translated to the audience through the music-making. As with almost all of the young pianists, he was too eager to get to fortissimo and passed by the intermediate forte level too quickly. However, his soft sounds, which require more control than making a loud noise, were laudable and effective. He was especially pleasing in his use of suddenly dropping the dynamic level and contrasting that with louder sections. Beethoven loved this device, dynamic levels that change abruptly rather than wax and wane, and Gillham’s keen observance was part of his success in this piece. The same goes for his judicious use of ritards. Go too much and the forward motion is impeded, too little and the phrase lacks shape. His tempo in the final Prestissimo was risky, but he pulled it off.
Liszt’s Sonetto 123 del Petrarca is a part of a larger work, his Années de pèlerinage (“Years of Pilgrimage,” meaning travel). This is from the second suite and is composed of revisions of three previously written pieces based on sonnets of Petrarch. In these, Gillham demonstrated considerable technical command. He delivered terrific octave passages, clean runs and excellent staccato passages and repeated notes. He was also impressive in his last selection, Liszt’s Spanish Rhapsody. Even though these two pieces hardly come up to the musical profundity of the Beethoven sonata, Gillham made as much music as possible with them.
Eric Zuber, 28, USA
Eric Zuber played the first of two consecutive performances of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 32 in C Minor, op. 111, which was one of his last compositions for the instrument. It is unusual in that it is only two movements.
Zuber sat upright at the keyboard and hardly moved as he played, something out of the ordinary for such powerful music. He caught the drama of the introduction and then launched into a fast tempo, but somehow, it didn’t feel rushed. The last movement, a series of increasingly fast variations, started out slowly, but this was a wise decision considering where the tempo would take him. His performance was thoughtful and showed a mastery of the difficulties, a challenging trill, finger dexterity, control and endurance.
The second half of his program consisted of four Rachmaninoff preludes: Prelude in B Minor, op. 32, no. 10; Prelude in G-sharp Minor, op. 32, no. 12; Prelude in G Major, op. 32, no. 5; and Prelude in B-flat Major, op. 23, no. 2. In these, he showed his ability to extend a singing line, keep a tremolo and trills going, make a big sound without overdriving the instrument, and capture the composer’s expansive style. The ending of the last prelude was the biggest dynamic level he used the entire time—right where it was the most appropriate.
Alexey Chernov, 30, Russia
Alexey Chernov opened with the same Beethoven’s Sonata No. 32 in C Minor, op. 111. He took a conservative approach, which is not the same as timid. He set realistic tempi that kept things moving and never slowed to the point of being labored. His Allegro was bright and fast, but some of the passage work in the lower register was indistinct. Some of the ritards were exaggerated but, in general, he had a good grasp on the sonata. The arietta was slow at the beginning but it had movement. He didn’t over-emote and carefully observed Beethoven’s marking molto semplice to his credit. Throughout, he was unassailable in his phrasing and you always knew where you were in the measure, even when it flew past quickly.
His programming of Ligeti’s Étude VI: Automne à Varsovie got him a gold star before he even played it. It is one of the scandals of this competition that so little contemporary music is in the contestants’ programs – even from the 20th century, which is now more than a decade behind us. Shame on them.
This particular étude descends time and time again down the keyboard and Chernov actually fell off the bottom end as he played the last notes. It is an excellent demonstrator of technique and musicianship and you cannot help but wonder why Ligeti’s études are not a staple of this competition, instead of an anomaly.
He followed this with three melancholy waltzes by Grieg, his Waltz in A Minor, op. 12, no. 2, and his Waltz in E Minor, op. 38, no. 7, and his more extensive Valse-Impromptu in E Minor, op. 47, no. 1. These tuneful pieces were a welcome respite from all of the complexities of not just Chernov’s program, but those of everyone else, all striving to impress. The Valse-Impromptu is less a waltz than the other two selections; it is more like an improvisation. Chernov played it this way, giving it the freedom it required but still keeping the feeling of a fast waltz.
Lizst’s showpiece the Mephisto Waltz No. 1 made its first appearance in the competition. You cannot help but wonder why, since it is such a staple of nimble-fingered pianists who have lots of power. Chernov made some music with it, although he was too loud for much of it, which deadened the effect for later. It is obvious that this is a signature piece for him and that he is very much at home with it. All of the scales and arpeggios were incorporated into the textures, rather than being an end in themselves. His short staccato passages glittered like ice crystals. He may have overplayed it for effect, but what else do you do with it?
◊ Click here to see reviews of the Prelminary Recital/Phase I for Jayson Gillham, Eric Zuber and Alexey Chernov.