Jayson Gillham on Beethoven’s epic cycle of piano concertos

In four concerts in June, the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra (ASO) will team up with outgoing principal conductor Nicholas Carter and high-profile Australian pianist Jayson Gillham to perform the entire cycle of piano concertos by Beethoven. Here Gillham shares his thoughts on this cornerstone of the classical repertoire.

What led to you on this epic journey to play all five of Beethoven’s piano concertos?

Beethoven’s music and particularly the concertos have travelled with me all through in my life. I began with the Second Concerto, which I first performed at the age of 16. I learnt the Fourth to participate in the Sydney International Piano Competition at age 17, and although I didn’t get to play it that year, I continued to rework it and prepare it for most of the international competitions I entered over the next 10 years. However, the first time I played Beethoven in a competition final it was actually No. 5 with the Halle at the 2012 Leeds International, with Sir Mark Elder.

I returned to No. 4 for my first prize performance at the 2014 Montreal International Competition, and it was this win that I think has come to associate me with Beethoven’s concertos, as I was immediately invited to play No. 4 with the Sydney Symphony and Vladimir Ashkenazy. That was the year I also did No. 3 with Jeffrey Tate and the ASO, which I have since toured with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in the UK. In my association with the Melbourne Symphony, I have played both the Second and Third concertos recently. So, I am continually returning to these seminal works, reworking and refining them.

Ironically, the last to get under my belt was No. 1, which I first performed in November with Auckland Philharmonia. This will be the first time I’m playing all five in close succession, and it is a privilege reserved for a very select few, so I am extremely grateful for the opportunity and the support from both the ASO and the ABC who will be recording all the works for release. I’m also incredibly excited to be undertaking this together with the young Australian conductor, Nicholas Carter, and this will be our first collaboration.

What do these five concertos mean for you, and what do they present to us today?

The journey across the five Beethoven piano concertos is not only Beethoven’s personal journey as a pianist and composer, but it tells other stories, notably the technological advancement of the piano as an instrument, and the social and political upheaval of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars that not only caused enormous bloodshed across Europe but gave rise to modern liberal values of individual freedoms, equality and human rights.

Today, the way we see the world and the values we care about the most are still very closely aligned. I can hear in Beethoven’s music the struggle of the individual to reach beyond himself to make the world a better place. There is a universalism to his music and an honesty that speaks directly. To me, Beethoven’s music is an agent for good in this world; it is incredibly powerful without being explicitly political. And in the case of the concertos, the soloist is the personification of the individual, who toils, struggles, celebrates and loves deeply. Of course, there are also times of lightness and humour – much needed!

Jayson Gillham
Jayson Gillham

How much did Beethoven follow in Mozart’s footsteps or branch out in new directions?

It’s very interesting that the so-called Second Concerto is one of the only pieces originating from Beethoven’s formative Bonn period that is still played regularly today. It was obviously reworked, and the finale was replaced altogether, but still it is a window to the young Beethoven. He began working on this when he was 17 or 18 years old.

The comparison with Mozart is understandable, as there is a clear influence. However, I feel that this gets problematic when people end up trying to play the first two concertos, especially No. 2, like they would play Mozart. It is Beethoven, and his unique voice, though still developing, is ever-present.

The perfection of Mozart, which seems so effortless to him, is hard work for Beethoven. And with Mozart I feel that there are social airs and graces in his music that are just not present in Beethoven. Beethoven’s not polite, but his down-to-earth directness makes his music so immediately arresting. And when the veneer of polite society is removed, it sets the scene for slow movements that are intimate and tender – truly romantic, already in the first two concertos.

What makes Beethoven’s approach to the piano concerto so abundantly original?

These days it’s hard to imagine a world without these concertos, so it’s easy to forget how ground-breaking each of them are. The Third is like a culmination of everything that had come before for Beethoven in the genre. This is now completely and utterly Beethoven; he’s taken full ownership of the form. It’s more dramatic and exciting, with more sound, a bigger piano, a bigger orchestra, he’s extended all the sections with a hugely long opening tutti and a coda that becomes another development section. And yet you wouldn’t change a note because everything feels exactly right. Not only is Beethoven impolite, unapologetic, he’s edging towards rude. His confidence borders on arrogance. And it’s a clear winner.

For me No. 4 is the most original. This time you’ve got the piano starting the piece; not only that but quietly and calmly, almost reverently. That’s not Beethoven! Is it? The piece is in G major but the first chord played by the orchestra is B major – so was it the pianist or the orchestra who started in the wrong key? But why does it sound so right? And instead of the whole point of a concerto – a vehicle for showcasing the soloist’s virtuosity – he gives us a sublime lyrical piece of heaven.

As if that wasn’t enough, with the second movement Beethoven gives us a singularly strange drama of extreme contrasts in place of a slow movement. Nothing like this has been written before or since. Just a few pages – strings only, in gutting unison, taunting the soloist who responds by turning the other cheek – a peaceful resistance – the power of one, feeble but also strong, in defiance of the violence and oppression of the mob. The incredible anguish after they relent. Following this, the third movement comes as a relief, brimming with wit and the ‘most sunny’ Beethoven.

Perhaps you could say the Fifth concerto is a return to the extroverted virtuosic concerto, but this time there’s more maturity, fullness and completeness, a richness to the sound that is reflecting the increased range and volume of the piano – and a changing world. Technically the writing is getting more challenging and the ensemble is more integrated. There’s nothing left for Beethoven to prove, so he can flex his muscles if he wants to, but there’s no urgency. He’s reached the summit, and it’s beautiful.

Beethoven: The Piano Concertos Elder Hall
Wednesday, June 5 to Saturday, June 15
aso.com.au

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