The Four Scherzos
Nocturnes – in F sharp, Op.15/2; in E minor, Op.72/1; in C sharp minor (1830)
Chopin, transcribed Liszt
Six Chants polonais – Mes Joies; Le Souhait
En rêve (Nocturne)
Gaspard de la nuit
Benjamin Grosvenor (piano)
Recorded 23-26 April 2011 in Lyndhurst Hall, Air Lyndhurst Studios, London
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: July 2011
CD No: DECCA 478 3206
Duration: 75 minutes
July 2011 – Quite a month for Benjamin Grosvenor. He made his BBC Proms debut, was announced as Associate Artist of Orchestra of the Swan and had his first Decca recording issued. (Of course, the ultimate accolade was to be interviewed by Classical Source!) With this Decca disc, he has thrown his hat into the ring with gladiatorial relish in choosing the huge intellectual and technical demands of Chopin’s Four Scherzos and Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, music essayed for the gramophone over many decades by many pianists. Decca is to be congratulated for its in-quick-time release of these four days of sessions recorded late in April (when the pianist was eighteen) and in the shops just in time for his nineteenth birthday (on 8 July).
Of course, youthful as he is, Grosvenor has been around a while, ever since his success in the keyboard section of the BBC’s Young Musician of the Year in 2004. He has not rushed (or been rushed) into a glittering career; rather he has matured naturally and is still refining and developing as a musician. And that ‘in progress’ position may just be the difference between a recording that sets new standards and one that, as this does, knocks impressively on the door without necessarily always gaining admission. Grosvenor, therefore, must be judged on his own terms.
This studio recital opens with an impulsive Scherzo No.1, yet Grosvenor finds time to articulate clearly and to accent (perhaps too aggressively) while revealing an impressive legerdemain in his coruscating way with the piece; yet his slowing, as is required by the piece, yields contrasts that are too marked and unbalance the whole, and the middle section, agreeably unaffected as it is, can seem too consciously beautiful. Recognising that Chopin composed the Four Scherzos as individual pieces rather than a set, Grosvenor separates them with Nocturnes that act as entr’actes. Like the B minor Scherzo, the first of the chosen ‘night pieces’ (in F sharp) also does not quite hit the spot, for while admirably straightforward and beautifully played, there’s that indefinable ‘something’ missing that turns excellence into something hauntingly special. Of course, Grosvenor is a young man, one abundant in talent, yet recordings are permanent fixtures and one knows that he will look again at these pieces and, as time rolls on, find something more personal and searching in them. One would though be bowled over by anything here if it were heard in a concert (and his Proms debut Liszt concerto was fabulous without ever trying to be so).
Not only does Grosvenor intercede on behalf of the Scherzos as stand-alone pieces, he also plays them out of sequence. After the (here) barnstorming Opus 20 comes the last of them, the elusive E major (Opus 54). Although Grosvenor brings it too much into the daylight, his rhythmic crispness and beguiling touch offer many rewards, and the E minor Nocturne that follows is richly spun. With the C sharp minor Scherzo (Opus 39), Grosvenor finds an impishness that isn’t necessarily en rapport with the piece and tends to lose its roundedness and, in the Trio, its majesty. (Ashkenazy, also Decca, continues to take the bouquet.) As if to confirm Grosvenor’s swings-and-roundabouts way with Chopin, his trilling and lilting of the C sharp minor Nocturne is simply ravishing. As for the B flat minor Scherzo (Opus 31), it’s almost impossible, whenever this work appears, to not hanker after Michelangeli’s staggering, seemingly untouchable version (on Deutsche Grammophon). Even without that yardstick, Grosvenor lacks a little poise and, as in the C sharp minor example, can be a little coy. However, the two Chopin songs that Liszt transcribed are pure pleasure – Grosvenor plays them with affection, charm and just the right degree of elasticity, ‘The Maiden’s Wish’ being brought off with irresistible zest and subtlety.
This smartly programmed disc, embracing as it does substantial and fragrant Chopin side by side, then Chopin songs re-imagined by an equal, followed by Liszt himself caught late in his life pointing music through a new conduit, his invitation to paint musical pictures taken up by Ravel. Liszt’s nocturne, En rêve (1885), hangs in the air as a tasty morsel to be taken into fully-fantastical territory – which Ravel does, remarkably, in the form of Gaspard de la nuit (1908). These thoughtful juxtapositions (Grosvenor seems to suggest that the Liszt should now always be played as a prelude to Gaspard) conclude with an impressive account of the Ravel. If not quite the ultimate in vibes and danger for this haunting and startling music, Grosvenor succeeds in creating a tense atmosphere in ‘Ondine’ diverged with much that is suitably poetic (Ravel’s inspiration was prose by Aloysius Bertrand) if not necessarily transcendent enough at the climax and, once again, he can be snappy with accents. Grosvenor is though suitably poker-faced with ‘Le gibet’, quite chillingly solitary, and then scintillating in ‘Scarbo’, almost as if the devil were at his side at the sessions. That said, referring back to Steven Osborne’s recent report for Hyperion, he is a mite understated in ‘Scarbo’ yet rather more compelling. Nevertheless, Grosvenor electrifies the air with his astonishingly fluent fingers and he judges to a nicety the work’s vaporous conclusion (but the ‘click’ as he signs off is regrettable and should have been removed or re-taken).
Captured in fine sound, faithful to the pianist’s range of colours and dynamics, Benjamin Grosvenor’s first release for Decca can only be counted a success – and is very well presented, too. Heard as a concert, tremendous; listened to as a recording knowing that it is fixed for evermore, and given the competition out there, then we’re in somewhat less certain terrain.