Recital: Sunday, June 2, 3:40 p.m.
So far, this has been a fine day for piano playing and Jayson Gillham’s recital was no exception. Here was another pianist who paid close attention to every detail written in the score and especially the dynamics. These are all little things, but cumulatively they are what shape the music, and the composition suffers when a pianist runs roughshod over them. Gillham scrupulously observed all of the composer’s suggestions, from Debussy to Brahms, with Chopin and Theofanidis along the way.
Theofanidis' Birichino received the best performance yet, although no one has fully explored the comic nature of this piece about the antics of a mischievous child. Gillham came close but he seemed hesitant to let his inner child out to play. However, he brought out aspects of the score that we have not heard before.
Chopin’s Rondo in E-flat Major, op. 16, is a major work of some length that requires careful pacing so as to not encourage the listener to accept an ending before it arrives. Gillham did a fine job of keeping the piece chugging along at a pleasant clip, never allowing all of the passage work to sound extraneous, as if it wasn’t part of the music. He did this by connecting everything in flowing phrases and shaping them with a great dynamic range. One example of a noticeable detail was a passage where the melody is the first note of sets of triplets. He accented the first note, slightly, and then backed off on the other two. In this way, he accompanied himself not only in the left hand, but in the right hand as well.
He followed this with three selections from Debussy’s Études, Book Two. These are technically challenging pieces; Debussy himself said they were meant to be formidable. Gillham played them without obvious strain and with impeccable virtuosity. In the étude Pour les degrés chromatiques (“chromatic scales”), he kept the running scales under other materials when needed and then brought them to the forefront when it was time for them to flash up and down the keyboard. In Pour les arpèges composes (“for arpeggios”), Gillham was able to summon Debussy’s less pedagogical style, in which arpeggios play such an important part. In the Étude Pour les accords (“chords”), Gillham zoomed up and down the keyboard with incredibly fast parallel triads. It was all quite impressive, as much so as any of the Liszt pieces that are purposely programmed to demonstrate such agility.
Brahms’ Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, op. 24, ended his program. He played the initial fugue in true Baroque fashion, but after that, it was Brahms all the way. Gillham showed an affinity for the German master’s style and his ability to play with fullness instead of loudness was especially welcome. Each of the variations is different, by definition, but Gillham was able to connect them so that the piece didn’t seem as sectional as it might have been in different hands. He started the big fugue in the substantial last section with more volume than was indicated, but he brought the dynamic level down shortly thereafter. Perhaps this forthright beginning was a good idea because it set the subject in our minds. He continued to bring it out in a noticeable way, without pounding it out as so often happens.
Gillham appeared to tire near the end of the Brahms, but he gave a superb recital that should be to his credit in the competition. His chamber music performance will tell the tale.
Chamber: Tuesday, June 4, 3:40 p.m.
Jayson Gillham has been impressive for the entire competition without impressing. There is something about his playing that exudes competence, a word both welcomed and dreaded, and one that doesn’t win the prize. He completely turned this around—and in the nick of time—with an outstanding performance of the Schumann Piano Quintet in E-flat Major, op. 44.
Here, he was nearly perfect. He was constantly in contact with the members of the Brentano String Quartet. More impressively, he knew which member to watch in each of the different situations. Sometimes, it was the cellist, in a slowing down near the end of a phrase. Other times, it was the first violinist on entrances and final chords. On a few occasions, it was the second violinist. It's a good guess that he would have been in contact with the violist if he had a better line of sight. The quartet must have enjoyed the experience.
Gillham kept all of his dynamics at the right level. Sometimes, he would let just a few measures rise up to prominence but would pull it back when his turn was over. He even managed to play some passages differently when the exposition of the first movement was repeated—lightly softer the second time. He took over in the development section, playing out significantly, and then relinquishing the spotlight when his turn was over.
As previously mentioned, the Schumann is different from the other allowed piano quintets in that it was one of the seminal works for the medium (Schubert’s Trout quintet used a bass) and thus set the standard for all those to come, such as the Brahms. So, the pianist can choose how to play it. Gillham took a combined approach—sometimes being the soloist and other times being the collaborator. This worked quite well for him and gave this frequently heard piece (as recently as this afternoon from Nikolay Khozyainov) a different feel, which was most welcome.
He did himself a lot of good with this excellent and enjoyable performance.
◊ Our profile of Jayson Gillham, 26, Australia/U.K.
◊ You can see quick links to the reviews of the other semifinalists here