Interview with Benjamin Grosvenor – Piano Soloist in First Night of BBC Proms 2011 & He Makes Debut Recording for Decca

Written by: Ben Hogwood

Benjamin Grosvenor. ©Benjamin Grosvenor

In 2004 Benjamin Grosvenor came to our attention as winner of the keyboard section in the BBC Young Musician of the Year. Seven years on, he is still only 18 (becoming 19 on 8 July 2011). Now under the auspices of BBC Radio 3’s New Generation Artists scheme, he has recently signed for Decca – the first British pianist to do so for 50 years – and is on the brink of releasing his first recording. As if this were not enough, he is preparing for the First Night of the 2011 BBC Proms. On July 15 he will perform Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto as the youngest-ever First Night soloist.

When I meet him on behalf of Classical Source, Benjamin has not long delivered a recital at Wigmore Hall (on June 20), a programme exploring Spanish-written and -linked piano music – from Scarlatti to Liszt, via Mompou and Albéniz. “I do get a say over my programmes and I thought it was nice to have the Spanish theme, with some great pieces in there. Liszt’s Rhapsodie espagnole is a wonderful piece and so much better than the Hungarian Rhapsodies, which have become a bit clichéd.” It’s refreshing that Grosvenor opts for musicality rather than virtuosity. Many of his immediate peers choose to show off technique. “If I have to say what part of performing I enjoy the most, it is that where you really feel as if you’re communicating with the audience. In a virtuoso showpiece their reaction comes at the end, whereas when the music is speaking you can really feel that they are there with you. I felt so comfortable at the Wigmore Hall in previous recitals, but in the Spanish one everything seemed to click, and I really enjoyed it. The audience was incredibly receptive. It could have been quite stressful but I enjoyed it.”

Now Benjamin’s focus is Liszt and the Proms. “We have had a big rehearsal for it”, referencing the Second Piano Concerto, “and I gave a performance with an amateur orchestra recently which was very helpful, and helped me to identify where the problem sections are. I’m nearly there with that now.” Discussing the concerto, he notes that “it’s like the B minor Sonata in the fact that it is in one movement and the work is based on the same thematic material throughout. One of the problems with performing it is the last section, the march is quite fragmented. Getting the tempos right is a difficulty. One other problem is the ending, which Liszt thought begged to be rewritten, as it was quite weak given everything that has come before.”

Grosvenor has played a lot of Liszt. However, “I haven’t performed the Second Concerto before. I did the First Piano Concerto last year in Japan, but the second I learned fairly recently, in the last few months – but it’s a piece I have wanted to play for ages, a great piece.” The first-night invitation is not the only time we will see Grosvenor at the Proms this year. “I already had the Britten Piano Concerto that was in the diary for performance – and then someone cancelled for the first night – I think it was Thibaudet – and they asked me if I’d like to do it. Of course it’s not something you turn down! So I accepted, and have been nervous about it ever since! Now I know the concerto more I feel more comfortable about it.”

The Britten (in Prom 30, with the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain) offers very different challenges – though Grosvenor is waiting to explore those. “That one I don’t know so well yet, as I’ve been focussing on the Liszt, but now that the Wigmore recital is done I can make progress with that. I’m not sure I’m in a position to say what the challenges are at the moment! I need to think about it a little more. Coordinating with the orchestra in places is going to be difficult, but we will see.”

Benjamin Grosvenor’s debut release finds a line from Chopin through to Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, by way of The Four Scherzos and some Liszt pieces. On the disc these are not performed together, rather interspersed with other Chopin pieces. Was this so that the key structure made more sense? “The Scherzos were not really conceived to be performed together, although of course they are today. They were conceived as individual pieces. I liked the idea of interspersing them with nocturnes, and when I perform them I tend to intersperse them with little pieces. The keys in the set don’t follow on together, and there is no real justification in putting them together. I think it works quite well, you have something that is very dramatic, and then you have a nocturne before the next Scherzo comes along. I hope it proves better to listen to them in that way.”

Decca has him a relatively free rein over repertoire. “Initially I wanted to do Chopin Scherzos and Gaspard, and they were right in their questioning of putting Chopin and Ravel side by side, as there is not much of a justification for doing that. So I had the idea of Chopin, and then Chopin viewed through the prism of Liszt, which we have with the arrangement of the Polish song, and then a little bit of late Liszt, which is very harmonically inventive and revolutionary, in a way which looks forward to Ravel, and which has a programmatic nature to it. There is continuity there, and they liked that.”

Liszt is the composer of focus for Grosvenor at the moment. “Well he wrote such revolutionary music, and then became reclusive and very religious, and he wrote some very strange music, some of it very forward thinking! I do enjoy playing it, and love the lyricism of the Second Piano Concerto; it is a lot more expansive than the First. To a certain extent the piano is more in the background, and one of the most beautiful moments in the concerto is the slower section where the cello has the melody, and the piano is accompanying. Even then you see signs of Liszt pulling away from how he wanted the pianist and the composer to be viewed. I do love a lot of his music.”

Despite such high-profile engagements, Benjamin is continuing his studies at the Royal Academy of Music, where he has finished the first year of a BMus course. He studies there with Daniel Ben-Pienaar. He has more music to learn as part of the New Generation Artists scheme. “I have new stuff for September, doing a Bach-Beethoven first half, the E minor Partita and the Opus 109 sonata. Because I’m on the Scheme I wanted to record a concerto, which is on the cards for next year. In terms of recital repertoire I have some Scriabin and Rachmaninov, and the Chopin B minor Sonata. I have a great love of chamber music as well, and have recorded Brahms with the Elias Quartet, so I am hoping that next year there will be a chance to devote more time to that.” He is fully complimentary of the New Generations scheme. “They ask you specific things, like a Chopin recital I was asked to do for the his anniversary, but in terms of concertos they give you dates and invite you to put things forward for concerts, and they try to be as flexible as possible.”

Decca, meanwhile, is keen to press on. “I think they want me to start thinking about the next CD, as it’s almost time to think about getting concerts around the time it will be recorded.” This brings us back to Liszt. Has he heard many recordings of the Second Piano Concerto while learning it? “I have a friend who is a recording collector, a big pianophile. There is a wonderful pianist Egon Petri, who studied with Busoni, and his recording is wonderful in its lyricism. One of the most famous recordings is by Cziffra, who is very good at the virtuosic, demonic stuff but I think Petri finds greater lyricism and tenderness in the slower passages.” Of getting these passages across in the Royal Albert Hall acoustic, Grosvenor baulks slightly before smiling. “It will be interesting to see how things project, but you have to be careful because you have the microphone, so you have the problem of whether you play to the audience or play to the microphone!” One senses that this is a problem Benjamin will enjoy solving.

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