The annual Jacques Samuel Intercollegiate Piano Competition offers budding young concert pianists the chance to vie for lucrative prizes in the forms of both cash and professional engagements.
It is held between the four major London-based music colleges and the recently-included Royal Northern College of Music, and exposes the successful participants to greater audiences, thus helping them to launch their own solo careers.
In American-born pianist and 2005 winner Dustin Gledhill, the competition has produced an artist with precocious talent and promising potential whose progress should be ardently monitored over the coming years.
Gledhill opened his Wigmore Hall recital one of two awarded to the winner of the Jacques Samuel Competition with a riveting performance of Handel’s Chaconne in G major HWV 435. To draw one’s audience in with a baroque set of variations at a concert’s beginning is no mean feat, yet Gledhill accomplished his task with consummate ease. Crisply-played passage work was mixed with glorious phrasing, while the atmosphere conjured up when the music moved into G minor was simply stunning.
Unfortunately, Beethoven’s G-major Sonata Op. 31 No. 1 struggled to live up to the standard Gledhill had already set in the Handel. In the programme notes, the pianist himself wrote of the “immense amount of humour and character” in the opening Allegro vivace. However, such qualities were not always conveyed during this opening gambit, particularly in the sometimes laborious-sounding dotted rhythms of the first subject. The Adagio grazioso second movement was more successful. The elaborate ornamentation was exquisitely performed, though occasionally the melodic line could have been extracted from the texture with greater clarity. The Rondo finale, however, brought the sonata to an exciting close as Gledhill captured the spirit that was sometimes lacking in the first movement.
The Second Book of Debussy’s Twelve Etudes rounded off the first half in excellent fashion as the Wigmore Hall audience was given a master class in pianistic textures and timbres. Gledhill proved to be a good interpreter of Debussy, creating a wonderful ambience that ebbed and flowed with the ever-changing moods of the six works on show. There were many highlights here, from the dazzling repeated notes in the ninth Etude to the rambunctious final study. However, while Gledhill had much to offer, one might have wished for a more kaleidoscopic dynamic range which, in turn, would have allowed him to place a greater emphasis on the sweeping gestures that characterise so much of Debussy’s compositions.
This brings me to a slight reservation that pervaded the performances on both sides of the interval. Gledhill’s playing, though full of personality and charm, was often hampered by a sense of restraint and “playing it safe”. One never quite felt on the edge of one’s seat, that the pianist was taking real risks with the music and executing them. There were moments when the dynamic level was underwhelming, when the potential for rubato was seemingly suppressed. However, this is not a serious concern such elements of pianism and musicianship will surely come with experience.
The second half began with Liszt’s “Funrailles”, the seventh instalment of the composer’s Harmonies Potiques et Religieuses. It was clear from the very beginning that Gledhill possesses a certain fondness for this work. The sombre, mournful funeral music at the start was beautifully performed as Gledhill brought out the melodic lines with a superb delicacy. The moto perpetuo triplets that herald the climax of the piece were equally convincing, played with a captivating level of excitement and virtuosity.
Though the evening would eventually finish with two encores by Chopin a brooding performance of the Nocturne Op. 27 No. 1 and a delightful rendition of the Waltz Op. 34 No. 3 the programme proper was brought to a close with the same composer’s Sonata No. 3 in B minor Op. 58. Some of the aforementioned performance traits of restrain and suppression were prevalent, especially in the Allegro maestoso opening (which was solid, yet uninspiring) and the Largo third movement (in which the reprisals of the second subject were not sufficiently varied and thus tended to sound repetitive).
However, these shortcomings were balanced by brilliant displays in the Scherzo and the Finale. The inner voices of the second movement’s Trio section were brought to life with intelligent and sensitive perspicacity, while the barnstorming Presto non tanto brought the house down. Indeed, it was during this last movement that we were given a glimpse into what Gledhill’s playing might become in the future with less moderation and greater audacity. It makes for a very exciting outlook.