Jayson Gillham – Music by Medtner & Rachmaninoff

by Mark Isaacs

Artist/s: Jason Gillham, piano / Melbourne Symphony Orchestra conducted by Benjamin Northey / Music by Medtner & Rachmaninoff
Label: ABC Classics ABC 481 5564
Reviewed by Mark Isaacs

This album both inspires and frustrates.

Jayson Gillham is a young Australian pianist, raised in rural Queensland, who only quite recently turned 30, and has seen considerable success on the international stage. That is something to celebrate wholeheartedly with an unfettered spirit of congratulation.

Gillham’s playing on this disc displays the assured technical pianism one might expect in a prize-winner at international competitions who has launched a significant worldwide career, as well as offering a quite mature approach to musical phrasing and the finely-balanced layering of textures – often occurring near-simultaneously in most registers of the piano – that is stock-in-trade of late Romantic piano literature.

This is no more evident than in Medtner’s Prologue ‘The Angel’, Op. 1 No. 1, one of two solo piano works that frame this CD of two concerti. This early work of Medtner’s (he composed it at age 17) is a tour-de-force of stratified musical ideas, producing a gripping orchestral-like texture. Gillham brings it off magisterially, taking care of all the layers at all times and drawing the listener into Medtner’s potent and telling soundworld.

The Medtner legacy is the other cause for celebration, in its connection to the great Australian pianist Geoffrey Tozer, who led a mercurial and ultimately rather tragic life. Tozer was a devotee of Medtner’s music, and was indeed the first pianist to record all of this little-known Russian composer’s piano music. I already have in my collection Tozer’s disc of Medtner’s piano concerti Nos. 2 & 3, recorded with the London Philharmonic under Neeme Järvi for the Chandos label (it is known that former Prime Minister Paul Keating championed Tozer to this prestigious international label and otherwise was an ardent supporter of the pianist).

Gillham explains in the CD booklet that he was involved in the documentary film about Tozer The Eulogy, and from there his connection to Medtner followed, and thus came his recording for this disc of Medtner’s Piano Concerto No. 1.

So this is something else that inspires. A strong and now ongoing Australian component (with the involvement of ABC Classics) bringing greater visibility to the music of this relatively unknown Russian master (and including in the historical process some Prime Ministerial oversight no less!).

Medtner and Rachmaninoff were born three years apart, and there are strong connections between their styles. Indeed they were good friends for most of their lives and shared their musical ideas in a kind of dialogue. Medtner’s music is not as ravishingly beautiful as his great friend’s, but often has a stronger intellectual fibre. In Rachmaninoff, the Apollonian and Dionysian instincts were balanced very much in favour of the latter (though he was no wallflower intellectually, as evidenced by his stunning contrapuntal inner textures, unexpected modulations and thoughtful orchestrations). In Medtner these twin instincts seem more in balance, equally weighted. Probably it is the imbalance itself – that unashamed leaning toward the sensual and devotional – which gives Rachmaninoff’s music the much more enduring canonic edge, and indeed its strong popularity with audiences.

Medtner’s more questing spirit can be seen in the formal structure of his Piano Concerto No. 1, a single continuous movement with internal seams that only suggest the more traditional multi-movement concerto structure. Boldly iconoclastic too is the concerto’s end: three single-note unaccompanied thumps at the very bottom end of the piano, like the proverbial tolling bells. The rhythms, too, in Medtner are more adventurous than Rachmaninoff’s mostly more square-cut phraseology. But though melodic, in Medtner there are few truly great tunes such as Rachmaninoff gives us at almost every turn.

Gillham surmounts all the challenges of this very difficult concerto without a hitch.

The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra under their Associate Conductor Benjamin Northey does little to truly inspire on this recording. Northey is a very fine technician, whose amiable and unintrusive approach means an orchestra can get on with the job while trusting that the ever-sure direction emanating from the podium will keep things together and balanced. That is certainly no mean feat in itself! However this kind of dispassionate and non-demanding style, that tends to avoid real exhortation, means that the music is not often on the edge of its seat emotionally-speaking. Solos, whether from wind or brass individual players, or from the string sections, are rarely shaped sufficiently, or bear enough emotional fortitude, to be viscerally moving. An international-standard orchestra should not sound as competently workmanlike as the MSO does on this recording. This is not helped by some questionable mixing. Both the Medtner and Rachmaninov concerti open with piano figurations that are mere accompaniment for melodies in the strings, but the piano is mixed too much in the foreground and swamps the tunes.

The decision to pair Medtner’s first piano concerto with Rachmaninoff’s warhorse second concerto could be either a cynical record company marketing move, or a genuine desire by the artists to make a fresh reading of what remains still a great, though hackneyed, work. In the disk notes Gillham says he and Northey were intent on “casting off our habits and expectations of how this piece should be played” but the result is dismal. What is “cast off” is the work’s deep and telling well of lyricism, its strongest suit after all! This is a lacklustre and bland reading.

Pairing a Medtner concerto with a Rachmaninoff makes complete sense, but why not Rachmaninoff’s neglected fourth concerto? It is, after all, dedicated to Medtner, and indeed, only a few weeks before this disk was recorded, Northey did a fine job conducting it with another stellar young Australian pianist Simon Tedeschi and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

Also disappointing is Gillham’s reading of Rachmaninoff’s great Prelude in D major, Op. 23 No. 4 which is cantered through insouciantly, with little sense of the exquisitely poised lingering and deeply tender searching with which it is surely redolent, such that the normally shattering climax, when it eventually arrives, seems enervatingly matter-of-fact.

This review was first published here