“Jayson Gillham performing Romantic Bach, originals and transcriptions of works by Johann Sebastian Bach” the programme intriguingly announced. The recital was part of this year’s Bloomsbury Festival, an annual event showcasing the talents of modern Bloomsbury residents who presumably feel they have something they ought to live up to, the very name of their neighbourhood being synonymous with artistic talent.
In Gillham’s case there can be no question about the quality of his talent, but as the audience assembled I did overhear a question about how the works of Johann Sebastian fitted the “Romantic” title. Gillham began by addressing this issue, describing the emotional range in these transcriptions of Bach’s works, and made an excellent case for them being appropriately termed “romantic”. Then he played them, and if you hadn’t entirely understood his verbal argument you certainly understood it now!
The term “romantic” does of course have a number of interpretations, not limited to its current association with romcom. The Oxford Dictionary defines it amongst other things as “…marked by an emphasis on feeling, individuality and passion” and Gillham’s programme encompassed all of these. From the start of the Toccata in G, BWV916, full of chattering gossip and argument interrupted by calm, measured tones as if a more sympathetic and insightful soul had entered the room, the clarity and speed of Gillham’s playing was remarkable.
His capacity to communicate emotion is supported by this technical brilliance. The key to the former may be that his playing never seems to be about Jayson Gillham, it is about the intention of the composer and, in this case, also those of the transcribers. Which is not to say that there is any lack of interpretation but, on the contrary, that Gillham’s interpretative powers are intently focused without distraction. The result is a depth of emotional communication that makes his performances most definitely full of feeling, individuality and passion.
The first half contained transcriptions by Alexander Siloti, Rachmaninov, Egon Petri and Liszt, the intention of each voice clear and immediate. The finale was the Prelude and Fugue in A Minor, BWV208 in a transcription by Liszt during which Gillham’s skill and interpretative power truly did have my hair standing on end. After the briefest of intermissions – youth and inspiration must give him his remarkable energy – Gillham guided us through the second part of his programme. His explanations are pleasures in themselves for here is a man who knows his subject and can communicate verbally with fluency, wit and buckets of Australian charm. Yes, he is currently living in Bloomsbury, but he was not about to let us forget that he is heart and soul a proud Aussie!
Introducing the second part he spoke of Bach’s “genius” in counterpoint, encouraging us to listen for the manner in which individual lines have independence and, played simultaneously, their different voices can be clearly heard without any loss of detail. Along the way he mentioned the suitability of the Conway Hall for this discourse through music, for the venue, founded by freethinkers in 1787, has a 21st-century manifesto saying they are “driven by the arts, discussion and investigation”.
The second half of this musical debate began with the Toccata in C Minor, BWV 911: again the clarity of voice Gillham achieves is outstanding and the shifting points of view contained within the busy opening and finale and the speculative centre were outstandingly communicated. Transcriptions by Wilhelm Kempff, Myra Hess – yes, Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring – and two by Busoni followed: the first, Organ Chorale Prelude, BWV734.
Finally the Chaconne in D Minor from the Violin Partita No 2, again a Busoni transcription. These eight minutes of thrilling music containing, as Gillham told us and then spectacularly illustrated, “every emotion of which man is capable”. It was an entirely appropriate and thrillingly romantic end to the programme. And for his encore, what else but Percy Grainger’s arrangement of Sheep May Safely Graze, which Grainger named Blithe Bells!