★★★★½ Aussie piano wunderkind’s chronological, conventional programme is a winner.

Concert Hall, QPAC
October 9, 2016

Australian classical music lovers have followed Queenslander Jayson Gillham’s steady rise to international acclaim with interest. And, due to his following, Gillham’s recital was in the QPAC Concert Hall rather than the more intimate Conservatorium Theatre. A long way from Dalby, where he grew up, Gillham is based in London and is a burgeoning force on the global circuit. In 2014, he won the Montreal International Music Competition.

Understandably, Gillham may have had an anticipatory and contradictory mix of pleasure and pressure before playing for supportive locals with giant-sized expectations. But if he did, nothing was visible on his friendly, unflustered face as he stood on the stage and acknowledged the audience. His stage presence is notably of the low-key, no-need-to-fuss variety. The programme, chronological and conventional, did not boycott major challenge. Baroque gems and Beethoven’s legendary Waldstein Sonata were programmed before interval, and, a tantalising crowd-pleasing selection by Liszt and Chopin, the unsurpassable Romantic champions of keyboard literature, in the second.

Gillham began with an astonishingly fluid and remarkably controlled account of Bach’s Toccata in C Minor, which springs a fantasia-inclined beginning, draws breath in a slower Adagio and towards the finale, spins a convoluted fugue, a high-octane brain-teaser which Gillham executed at burning breakneck speed, his spidery, magically agile fingers travelling purposefully. Gillham rose to Bach’s fleet-fingered provocation superbly. Each fugal voice’s arrival was iridescent, buoyant, guilelessly and seamlessly conversational. There was not the faintest possibility that the Bach was a throwaway, an easy digestible appetiser shrugged off before the more exacting times ahead.

Gillham revealed a deep affinity with this Baroque piece, one of the evening’s absolute standouts. His interpretative mastery and supernatural control was revealed in a precision-powered, beautifully pearled pianism. A triumph. After which, the piano-centric listeners sighed and snuggled into the seat, safe in the authoritative hands of Queensland’s returned hero of the keys. Handel’s Chaconne in G, HWV435 extended Gilham’s flight into Baroque skies with a loving take infused with sophisticated insight.

In the Waldstein Sonata, it was as if Gillham shone a torch into Beethoven’s trailblazer and illuminated the marvel of its architectural construction pausing here and there to emphasise the intricate details. Rather like Kevin McCloud in TV’s Grand Designs, he was an enabler, allowing the audience to experience the composer’s ingenious, scaffolded structures in a fresh and rewarding light. The first movement and rapid repetitions of the introductory C Major chord was not a Martha Argerich storm chaser, but exuded a reflective stance. A fiery, big-toned stretch was unleashed later on. The 29-year old’s blistering virtuosity in the Rondo took the breath away and the flawless glissandi octaves in the Sonata’s last gasps were phenomenal.

Gillham launched the second half with Liszt’s Funerailles, the seventh piece from Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, a piano collection written in 1849. Gillham’s delivery was heartfelt, declamatory and emphasised a hollowed emptiness. An unusual work in which Liszt’s customary hair-curling passagework was reined in, replaced by a howl of universal grief. Gillham’s distinctive execution was empowered by a deeply personal investment.

This preceded a quartet of frequently heard Chopin sparklers, the Berceuse in D Flat , Op. 57, Impromptu No 3 in G Flat , Op. 51, the Grande Valse Brillante in E Flat, Op. 18 and the ‘heroic’ Polonaise in A Flat, Op. 53. Of these evergreens forever tattooed into our brains, Gillham excelled in the poetic, softly spoken Berceuse and the ‘heroic’ Polonaise, although the latter could soar to even loftier heights with an intensified exploration of Chopin’s anguish.

In an encore at the end of an exhausting recital, most pianists bask in the sunny realm of a simpler work or splash around in a piece of frothy frivolity. Not so in Gillham’s case. After prolonged applause, he politely advised the crowd he was going to play the Verdi/Liszt Rigoletto Paraphrase, one of Liszt’s most provocative works, a juggernaut of sugary, effervescent whispered virtuosity only the brave or insane would attempt at this juncture and the flawless, silky delivery all but eclipsed the brilliance of the second half. If the Olympian sprinter Usain Bolt had been there, he would have kneeled and modelled a bolt of lightning because this recital on Gillham’s home stretch was a winner.