From the dramatic opening gesture of Nikolai Medtner’s First Piano Concerto, Australian pianist Jayson Gillham asserts himself with a powerful sound, channeling the strength and drama of a work that shares its years of composition with those of the First World War. For Gillham’s latest disc on ABC Classics he sets this lesser-known beast of a concerto against one of the warhorses of the piano repertoire, Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto.

A younger colleague of fellow pianist-composer Rachmaninov, Medtner only ever wrote for orchestra in his three piano concertos and it is perhaps this – along with a disinclination to tour, promote himself and conduct – that has meant his works haven’t enjoyed the same limelight as those of his more famous friend.

Gillham, who was introduced the Medtner’s works through his involvement in a documentary on the life of Australian pianist and Medtner champion Geoffrey Tozer (whose fine recording of this concerto with Neeme Järvi and the London Philharmonic is on Chandos), attacks the work with a singing tone and bright precision. Joined by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and Benjamin Northey, Gillham rides Medtner’s surging power with clarity and attention to detail.

A highlight of the first section (the work is laid out as a mammoth single movement, but there is a sense of two vast sections and a coda finale) is the glittering passagework that follows the MSO’s plunge into brassy depths, Gillham’s crystalline playing highlighted with wind solos before it gives way to the restrained, almost cautious, lyricism of the Tranquilo middle section. There are many fine wind solos – the clarinet is a feature, as it is in the second movement of the Rachmaninov – and Gillham brings a sparky playfulness to the moments of syncopated dancing, deftly duetting with Northey and the orchestra. The coda ultimately finds light, blossoming into sunny piano figures and lush strings.

Rachmaninov’s famous opening unfurls more slowly than Medtner’s declaration, roiling piano soon joined by the orchestra. Setting it against the darker menace and demonic rhythms of the Medtner, Gillham brings out the lyricism of the Rachmaninov, giving the work an animated, almost breezy energy – it’s a lighter-footed rendition than, say, Richter or Ashkenazy. Even in the gentler passages there is a sense of flowing movement, threads drawn taut across the larger landscape of the work. Gillham shows himself a skilled ensemble player, but with plenty of his own colour and personality in the mix. The Adagio has a sweetness that swells with pathos, while the third movement sparkles with an effervescent brilliance, Gillham treating the syncopated accents as playful jumping off points before the music snowballs
into greater drama.

Two palate cleansers fill out the disc. Medtner’s Prologue Op. 1 No 1, ‘The Angel’ chases the composer’s First Concerto while Rachmaninov’s Prelude in D Major, Op. 23 No 4 follows his concerto, providing some release after the drama and intensity of the larger works.

This release is worth it for the Medtner alone, but Gillham’s excellent playing in both mighty concertos results in a disc bursting at the seams with rich pianism.

Jayson Gillham’s Medtner and Rachmaninov disc, out now on ABC Classics, is Limelight‘s Recording of the Month for September 2017.