No wonder Jayson Gillham looked pleased to be back on stage at Birmingham Town Hall. It must have brought back some happy memories, as it was here that he won first prize in the 2011 Brant International Piano Competition. In the intervening couple of years, he’s built up an inspiring CV. He played Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto with the Hallé as a finalist in the 2012 Leeds International Piano Competition, was named Commonwealth Musician of the Year, 2012, and has accumulated concert credits throughout London, across Europe and back home in Australia. The confidence, presence and maturity he displayed today indicated that he’s well on the way to a “Bright Future” – as reflected in the banner of this particular concert series, which showcases young talent.

Jayson Gillham © Saga Images
Jayson Gillham
© Saga Images

Gillham’s programme showed off not only his technical prowess but also an appealing musicality that made everything he played a joy to listen to. This stemmed partly from his supremely relaxed style; despite the marathon-like challenges of his repertoire, he scarcely broke into a sweat! Kicking off with Bach’s Toccata in G major, BWV 916 was a good choice, as it demonstrated in a nutshell that this was a pianist with a glowing touch (from the Italian “toccare”), capable of delightful nuances of dynamic colour, and equally at home whipping up a frenzy of ornamentation or – as in the blissful Adagio – calming the pace with measured poise.

Beethoven’s Sonata no. 24 in F sharp major, Op. 78 is said to be one of the composer’s favourites, dedicated to Countess Thérèse von Brunsvik (believed by some to be his “Immortal Beloved”) who gave him her portrait bearing the inscription “To the unique genius”. Unusually, it’s just two movements long, with a very sunny feel. An arresting four-bar Adagio cantabile gives way to a lyrical Allegro ma non troppo, with contrasts galore in a series of soft and loud chords answering each other. The Allegro vivace movement is full of vigour and this afternoon from my vantage point it afforded the added dimension of ten bouncing and scampering fingers reflected on the shiny Steinway – a sight which served to emphasise the skill in conquering this masterpiece.

Liszt transcribed for piano several of his son-in-law Wagner’s works, including the Liebestod which draws Tristan und Isolde to its morbid conclusion. Literally “love death”, the piece brought a change of atmosphere to the proceedings, with dramatic rumblings in the left hand with the tune soaring above operatically in the right. Gillham, coaxing both whispers and heartfelt cries from the instrument, drew out passion and sadness, and the delicacy of the ending – resulting in several moments’ silence before the applause – was a delight.

The second half of the hour-long recital was devoted to Schumann’s Études Symphoniques, Op. 13, but with its seamless sense of forward momentum it was over all too quickly. With a multitude of variations, the studies are based on a single theme, attributed to amateur musician Baron von Fricken, who was the father of Schumann’s then fiancée Ernestine. The original theme is in C sharp minor, tragic in mood, but a range of keys, tempi and dynamics ensues, conjuring up a rich and interesting tapestry – but always with the memorable theme in evidence. It became increasingly clear that Gillham is a fine exponent of the direction “con energia”, and yet his sensitive touch in the slower passages, such as the Andante espressivo of Étude XI, was equally remarkable. The darkness of G sharp minor then gave way to the sun bursting through in the final study’s excitement-packed D flat major Allegro brillante. Brilliant.

The audience seemed to love this talented young man and happily lapped up Chopin’s Étude in F major Op.10 no.8 as an encore. Shades of treats in store for his next return to Birmingham, perhaps?