In concert – Jayson Gillham, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Owain Arwel Hughes: Grace Williams, Grieg & Sibelius

Williams Penillion (1955)
Grieg
Piano Concerto in A minor Op. 16 (1868)
Sibelius
Symphony no. 5 in E flat major Op. 82 (1919)

Jayson Gillham (piano), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Owain Arwel Hughes

Cadogan Hall, London
Tuesday 12 April 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse. Photos (c) Benjamin Ealovega (Jayson Gillham)

Its high-profile concerts may currently be elsewhere in London, but the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra continues its schedule of regular performances at Cadogan Hall, and this evening was heard under the direction of former principal associate conductor Owain Arwel Hughes.

Hughes has rightly featured Welsh music whenever possible, and this programme began with Penillion that Grace Williams wrote for National Youth Orchestra of Wales. Two symphonies aside, several other of Williams’s pieces are inherently symphonic – not least her ‘symphonic poem in four movements’ whose title infers the Welsh tradition of singing against an existing melody. This is heard at its most evocative in the initial Moderato with solo trumpet intoning its (original) theme in the context of ethereal contributions from woodwind, harp, and strings. There follows a tensile Allegro then haunting Andante as ‘scherzo’ and ‘slow movement’ of a piece where the trenchant final Allegro proceeds toward a gently fatalistic close. Certainly, this is music such as warrants frequent hearings – irrespective of the present cultural climate.

Hard to imagine Grieg’s Piano Concerto undergoing a period of neglect, yet familiarity need not breed contempt at the hands of a skilled and sensitive exponent which Australian-British pianist Jayson Gillham assuredly is. After a commanding start the first movement felt unduly sectional in its unfolding, its orchestral tuttis a little overwrought, but the second main theme was limpidly rendered then Gillham came into his own with a cadenza whose developmental aspect was as audible as its virtuosity. With its poetic contributions from solo horn and cello, the Adagio was no less affecting, then the finale’s lyrical middle section threw into relief the combative dialogue either side. Its flute melody returns in a peroration whose grandiloquence found effective contrast with the Notturno in C (Op.54 No 4) that Gillham gave as an encore.

Even if Sibelius’s Second Symphony had been replaced by his Fifth during the run-up to this concert, the latter’s inclusion played no less to the RPO’s collective strengths. Building those earlier stages of the first movement’s intricate evolution patiently and methodically, Hughes amply brought out this music’s epic as well as ruminative qualities on the way to a powerful central climax – from where its scherzo-like continuation headed stealthily and purposefully to a coda that, if it lacked the last degree of visceral impact, generated undeniable dynamism.

The highlight was an Andante enticingly poised between intermezzo and slow movement – its plaintive repartee of not without its more ominous moments, yet whose winsome essence was itself a telling foil to the finale. Here the coursing interplay of strings and enfolding eloquence of its ‘swan theme’, horns magnetically to the fore, set in motion the eventful progress toward an apotheosis whose affirmation was never in doubt. If some of those concluding chords were not quite unanimous, this hardly detracted from the majesty of Sibelius’s overall conception.

A memorable ending, then, to an appealing programme that found the RPO on fine form and confirmed Hughes’s insights. The orchestra returns here next week in a concert of Schumann, Brahms and Dvořák with the violinist Fumiaki Miura and the conductor Domingo Hindoyan.

The inclusion of Penillion was made possible with funding from the ABO Trust’s Sirens programme, a ten-year initiative to support performance and promotion of music by historical women composers. Further information can be found by clicking here For further information on the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s 2021/22 season, click here Click on the performer names to read more about Jayson Gillham and Owain Arwel Hughes, and for more on Grace Williams click here

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