James Willshire

Merchants House, Glasgow

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Keith Bruce, four stars

AS saxophonist Paul Towndrow begins a season of jazz concerts there on the second Sunday evening of each month, there are more reasons to visit the beautiful room just off George Square that has long been the home of Westbourne Music’s fortnightly Wednesday lunchtime chamber recitals.

The return of pianist James Willshire was not just the start of the 2018 Westbourne programme but also the first of five visits this year in which he will play the entire piano catalogue of Claude Debussy in the centenary year of his death. This is a mighty project, with the musician performing the works from memory if the first concert is any guide. It alternated works written when the composer was in his twenties and those from the last years of his life, less than thirty years later.

Although I’ve been as guilty as any in deploying it, how useful the visual art word “impressionist” is in describing music is open to debate, and it certainly applied to little here. The Deux Arabesques and Valse romantique, from the end of the nineteenth century, certainly sound French, and so too, in its way, does the First World War Berceuse heroique, which Willshire inserted between them. But rather than being anything musically pictorial, all three are differing demonstrations of the capabilities of the piano, which made them ideal precursors to the fiendishly difficult twelve Etudes.

These works, also from 1915, are indeed technical “studies”, which not only require astonishing articulation in the hands, and communication between them, but also huge variation in dynamics and tempo. Exercises in fourths and sixths undoubtedly influenced great jazz piano players, numbers 6 and 7 are each one lightning fast run, while 9 - “les notes repetees” - is relentlessly rhythmic. It is very modern-sounding, as are the arpeggios of number 11, anticipating synthesiser sequencing.

This sequence of recitals by Willshire is an unmissable opportunity to hear these demanding pieces live; the next, with both sets of Images, is on May 2.