With Love, from Australia

ItalyItaly Bach, Schumann, Ligeti, Liszt: Jayson Gillham (piano) Teatro Ghione, Rome. 10.03.2013 (JB)

Bach: Toccata in C minor, BWV 911
Schumann: Symphonic Studies Op 13
Ligeti: Three Studies
Liszt: Isolde’s Liebestod
Transcendental Study no 5 –Feux Follets
Rhapsody Spagnole S 254

Jack Buckley and Jason Gillham. Photo by Chris Axworthy
Jack Buckley and Jayson Gillham. Photo by Chris Axworthy

Does Australia produce outstanding pianists? You would only need to remember the name of Percy Grainger to answer with a resounding Yes. But Ladies and Gentlemen, I now have another name for your list. He is Jayson Gillham and if my guess is right, he is still on the youthful side of thirty. (My efforts to interview him failed because of a lack of coordination between the artist’s management and the theatre.) This is a pianistic voice which is as convincing as it is unique. Moreover, his display of virtuoso musicianship began in authoritative style and worked up to a climax of breathtaking romanticism. There aren’t many pianists of Gillham’s age who posses a distinctive voice all of his own, yet which has the elasticity to embrace music from Bach to Ligeti.

In the Bach toccata there was electric articulation which brilliantly illuminated the composer’s intentions. Mr Gillham has fingers which make difficult music sound like child’s play. And play he does: and this is using that word to indicate the most delightful childlike approach, Lots of Ausy cheek here. This could easily tip over into vulgarity in another performer. But Gillham’s musicianship is too entrenched to permit that. He convinces every inch of the way. There is a daredevil element in his performance. But he full well knows that he will be the winner of any bet with the devil. And what a privilege it is to witness this wager with Old Nick.

Schumann, of course, calls for another sound. Bach was played with little or no pedal, invoking pre-piano keyboards. But Schumann’s Symphonic Studies found him getting sonorities out of that excellent Steinway, never previously heard in the Teatro Ghione. (Congratulations to the theatre in bringing the piano forward outside the proscenium arch, which in itself gave a better sound in the auditorium.) Nor has Mr Gillham forgotten that these are Symphonic Studies: the boy extracted a whole spectrum of orchestral colour from the instrument. This was a torchlight procession through the riches of Schumann’s symphonic jungle –always directional and with some pleasing and unexpected twists and turns. I’m not sure I ever want to make this musical journey again if Jayson Gillham is not my guide.

Ligeti turned out to be a perfect vehicle for the pianist’s remarkable combination of know-how and musicianship. But by this time, I was asking myself, what wouldn’t be? The luminosity of the Ligeti studies has never been better served. And he is one of the few pianists who captures the sheer fun of this writing. The Ausy cheek is a great asset again here. Remember it in Grainger’s performance of the Grieg concerto?

Isolde’s Liebestod of Liszt had the most hauntingly beautiful cantabile ever produced on a piano. The concert had started well but we were still on a crescendo of musical quality. We still had the brittleness of Ligeti in our ears (delightful as that composer surely intended) but he was now washing this down the river of romanticism; under his fingers, the piano took on the sonorities of the organ.

Still with Liszt, came the fifth transcendental study- a frolicking display of pianistic brilliance which he communicated admirably. Then there was the programme’s final piece –the Rhapsody Spagnole –a pianistic fireworks display if ever there was one. And you can certainly rely on Jason Gillham when it comes to setting the keyboard alight with Lisztian fireworks.

That was the end of the printed programme. But Mr Gillham still had his ace card up his sleeve. His first encore was the Liszt transcription of the Rigoletto Quartet. Poetry combines with virtuosity here. And Gillham is a thoughtful, profound representative of both traditions.

The charming Debussy Chromatic Study brought the evening to an end. And yes, the boy has buckets of charm too. The concert was thinly attended: fewer than forty people in a theatre which seats six hundred. Rome is partly under a flu epidemic and there was a thunderstorm just before the concert, with heavy rain, during and after. But dear Rome, you don’t know what you missed.

Jack Buckley