It was back in the early sixties that Leonard Bernstein posed the question as to who was the boss in a concerto? The soloist or the conductor. Of course the answer varies with the performance but in the case of these magnetic performances, it was the soloist, pianist Jayson Gillham who shaped and led with conductor Nicholas Carter and the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra providing the most appropriate of support, seeming at times to breathe and articulate as one with Gillham. It has been announced that this current cycle of Beethoven’s five concerti will be recorded by ABC Classic for release and the pressure is surely on for all concerned, with each being treated to a single performance only.

Jayson Gillham. Photograph © Benjamin Ealovega

Gillham has had great success with Beethoven in competition and performance internationally, and is quickly emerging as one of the finest keyboard exponents of his generation both here and in Europe. And although he has already released the fourth concerto live in concerto with Ashkenazy and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, the idea of pairing Australia’s finest up and coming pianist with our finest contemporary conductor in Nicholas Carter to perform and record a cycle is a great one. Presented at a smaller venue than one would have expected (the University of Adelaide’s Elder Hall), the concert not only presented an intimate listening experience, but one which would be equated with the size of concert halls in the composer’s Vienna of the early 19th century. Similarly, Carter has brought reduced orchestral forces to bear, bringing not only a sense of historical realism together with modern orchestral practice and instrumentation, but a sense of intimacy and deftness of touch.

After the relatively short Tragic Overture, which shows Brahms at his most martial and Beethovenian, it was straight into a hypnotic account of the under-heard second concerto which owes as much to the Classical purity of Haydn as it demonstrates the surging inner Romantic turmoil and passion which would come to dominate Beethoven’s later scores and those after him. This balance was to be heard in both of the concerti performances with Gillham’s extraordinary clarity and lightness of touch in the left hand showing homage to Beethoven’s past (Mozart and Haydn). He also displayed  an uncanny sense for the Romantic with the most incredibly smooth legato often brought to bear in lines which were richly reminiscent of song, an idea that Carter would admirably support throughout the performances.

Such was the clarity of the orchestral accompaniment, the colours  brought to bear and the mutual support, that these performances seemed often at times to be closer to chamber music than the battle between orchestra and soloist often experienced during concertante performances. The delicacy brought by the flute and horn in the third concerto’s Largo and the interplay between the well-tuned timpani in the final bars of the concluding Rondo of the same piece, are just two examples where the sense of balance and support between these impressive musical forces come up as delightful surprises, often never heard before within these well-known and much listened to works. For these reasons there is no doubt that these will stand up as released performances – for often the finest of recorded performances are those which continually throw up new intricacies within them. Some may query the speed of some of the chosen tempi but it must be remembered that these are the performances of young and passionate musicians, and often favourite recordings of these works are made by older ones more set in their ways. Vive la jeunesse!