A prodigious young pianist gave a remarkable recital at a Pembrokeshire country retreat on Sunday evening.

The pianist was 20-year-old Adam Jackson, a student at the Juilliard School of Music in New York, and the venue was the beautiful Neuadd y Dderwen at Rhosygilwen Mansion, Cligerran.

Rhosygilwen (Observer pic)

The young musician sparked interest from the outset, introducing the pieces he was about to play with informative descriptions, pointing out each work’s unique qualities as well as its background story.

What followed was a diverse musical adventure; a thrilling journey of composition and sound.

The Steinway grand piano at Rhosygilwen
The Steinway grand piano (Observer pic)

The Steinway Grand danced, marched, trickled, cascaded, thundered, rang and soothed under Jackson’s deft touch; the warm, wood-rich hall ensuring that every note could be appreciated by the whole audience.

Adam explained that his first choice, Bach ‘Italian’ Concerto in F major, had originally been composed for two manual harpsichord. The instrument had two keyboards, one loud, one soft. This enabled Bach to employ dynamics that would otherwise have been impossible to achieve on the harpsichord.

Sure enough, as the fleet-fingered pianist played, so the grand piano became a harpsichord - crisp, precise and busy. The loud and soft passages interwove, so that it would be easy to imagine that there were two pianists, two pianos… in fact, it was hard to believe that all those sounds could be produced at once by a single player. The middle movement provided a stately contrast with the drama and complexity of the first and third.

Although Mozart is associated with traditional musical conventions, his second movements often reveal surprising innovations, as Adam explained and then demonstrated with the playful Sonata No.10 in C major, where twice in the second movement a daring dissonance is allowed to linger before it is resolved. The third movement, with its cheeky ending, produced some laughter from the attentive audience.

The pianist then told the story of a Russian composer who was born on Christmas Day - according to the Julian calendar - and therefore had an egomaniacal, Messianic view of himself. Alexander Scriabin had synesthesia: he perceived music as colours, so listening to Adam Jackson playing his Sonata No.4 in F sharp major was a kaleidoscopic experience. The jazz-tinged work, consisting of two fused movements - one ethereal, the other wildly dramatic - was a fantastic experience, like watching fireworks over a fairground. And how this gifted young pianist was able to commit such a complex composition to memory is a mystery revealed only to a handful in each generation.

The tonal qualities of the piano were explored still further with Debussy’s ‘L’isle Joyeuse’. As the solo piano piece had also been orchestrated by Bernardino Molinari, Adam invited his listeners to speculate while he played as to which orchestral instruments could be discerned.

After the interval, the musical feast continued with two Ballades by Chopin: The mellifluous No. 3 in A flat major, written in a happy period of life for the composer, and the mature Ballade No. 4 in F minor, which Adam said is widely regarded as the pinnacle of 19th century piano music. Jackson’s performance was as nuanced as the composition itself, with its sagely wistful theme*. This proved a firm favourite with the audience.

Introducing his final performance of the evening, Adam told how Haydn declared upon Mozart’s death that 100 years would pass before the next truly great composer. And Prokofiev, born 100 years after Mozart’s death, would have agreed with the statement! Ironically earning a Stalin Prize, Prokofiev’s Sonata No.7 in B flat major was the second of his ‘War Sonatas’, expressing a world in turmoil and, amidst it, great sadness. Once again, Jackson’s performance was breathtaking, the macabre marches of the first movement giving way in the second to a broken anthem, dark descents and tolling bells before a raging, rhythmic finale; the closest any pianist can get to a drum solo!

Impressive though this dramatic work was - and adored by some - it was perhaps a bleak way to end a concert, so there was audible appreciation from the audience when Adam announced Chopin’s Nocturne in D flat for an encore. By this time, the Steinway strings had had such a hammering that they had detuned slightly, altering the tone of the piano by adding a ‘chorus’ effect to some of the high notes, but the beauty of the performance still shone through and a well-earned standing ovation ensued.

A standing ovation for 20-year-old pianist Adam Jackson after Rhosygilwen performance
A standing ovation for 20-year-old pianist Adam Jackson (Observer pic)

It was the second concert of the month-long Fishguard Festival of Music; a festival Adam is no stranger to, as his late grandparents lived in Fishguard. Accompanied by his parents, the UK-born musician will return to the United States on Saturday (August 12).

Seen here with his Polish mother and Welsh father, UK-born Adam Jackson began his piano studies at the age of 7 after his family moved from Dubai to the United States.
Seen here with his Polish mother and Welsh father, UK-born Adam Jackson began his piano studies at the age of 7 after his family moved from Dubai to the United States. (Observer pic)

After a pause, the festival will continue with a 17-concert run starting with another piano performance at Rhosygilwen. Iwan Llewelyn-Jones will be performing ‘Seascapes’ on August 18.

See The Fishguard Festival of Music website for details of forthcoming events.

Note: *I might be the only person to think it but, listening to Chopin’s Ballad No. 4 for the first time last night, it was easy to imagine that Andrew Lloyd Webber drew inspiration from the piece for his tearjerker hit ‘Close Every Door to Me’, from the musical Joseph and the Technicolour Dreamcoat.