Jayson Gillham
Jayson Gillham


Review: Limelight Magazine - Sydney Symphony Orchestra/ Vladimir Ashkenazy/ Sydney Opera House

Written by Jayson, Thursday 13th October 2016

Gillham proved a poet…

Vladimir Ashkenazy’s Beethoven celebration with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra continues on apace after a six-month break, the final three instalments featuring a pair of fine piano soloists, and culminating in the mighty Ninth in a couple of weeks’ time. The drawcards in this “Beethoven Heroic” concert were, of course, the ever-remarkable Eroica Symphony, but also a welcome appearance in the Fourth Piano Concerto by young Australian pianist Jayson Gillham, a much-talked about rising star whose performance of the work won him the Montreal International Music Competition a couple of years ago.

There was a natural poetry evident from Gillham’s opening motive onwards, and also a certain careful restraint born of a desire to take his time and build his narrative. A tall, rangy figure, he has a natural elegance at the piano, sitting upright, arms easily spanning the instrument. His scales were fluid and even, the weight and balance well distributed. Despite the odd minor hiccup, his tone was rounded and substantial, easily riding the orchestra. The SSO was kept in check perfectly by Ashkenazy. A great proponent of the work himself, he knows it backwards and it shows. The first movement cadenza found Gillham in his natural habitat, displaying a wide dynamic and a fine sense of line, the organic ending finely finessed by both artists.

After a weighty, sombre start from Ashkenazy, Gillham settled into a deeply felt and meditative Andante, surmounting what can feel like a tricky musical conversation between composer and muse. Mustering his musical arguments perfectly, I guess you could describe it as more Hillary than Donald, and I mean that in a good way. The concluding Rondo was architecturally compelling, thanks to Ashkenazy’s cool hand and Gillham’s comfortable pacing, the soloist proceeding to gradually let his hair down with each return of Beethoven’s catchy tune. His choice of the Fugue from Bach’s Toccata in G, BWV916 as encore showed an exemplary sense of proportion combined with an ideal dose of playfulness. I’m very much looking forward to his recital next week.

Meaty, beaty, big and bouncy. The title of The Who’s classic 1971 compilation album pretty much describes Ashkenazy’s approach to Beethoven’s symphonies, and the Eroica had all the values and some of the faults of the previous instalments in this series. At its finest, this was Beethoven in the vein of late-period Karajan – warm silky strings, chunky fortes, a good spring in the percussion. On the other hand, there was an occasionally Victorian feel to the waltz rhythms, for example, while sluggish tempi left wind solos at times feeling lethargic as Ashkenazy’s pace held them back. And in the big tuttis, they were lost altogether against the strings, a problem which has bedevilled Ashkenazy’s previous Beethoven outings. With his idiosyncratic conducting style, Ashkenazy is perhaps not the easiest maestro to follow. In other words, while the architecture may be clearly understood, some of the bricks in the wall felt a little wobbly.

Things picked up in the second movement, and I’ll confess, I found the Funeral March very affecting indeed, although it’s pace was the slowest I think I’ve ever heard in this movement. Sounding more like Parsifal’s Grail Knights coming to bury Titurel than an – admittedly revolutionary – Classical Adagio, the gains were in the way solo instruments could shape the lines – oboe and flute especially. Ashkenazy too was able to do huge things with entire sections, and here the balance was generally spot on.

The Scherzo was less satisfying, graceful at times, yes, but low-wattage in the quiet builds and a little heavy handed in the climaxes. The three horns in the trio – who generally had an excellent night – sounded positively Brucknerian. But perhaps the greatest casualty of Ashkenazy’s pacing choices was the Finale. Far from Allegro molto, it lumbered at times, never quite catching fire, with oboes and clarinets frequently wiped out by strings. It all felt too stodgy in the fortes, and the agonisingly slow variations in the latter half pretty much fell apart. With things virtually grinding to a halt, the final thrash was left sounding like much ado about nothing.

Ashkenazy’s Beethoven continues until October 29. Jayson Gillham plays with the SSO on October 14 and 15, and at City Recital Hall on October 24

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