Benjamin Grosvenor at Queen Elizabeth Hall

Partita in D, BWV828
Polonaise in F sharp minor, Op.44
Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise brillante, Op.22
Mazurkas, Op.3 – Nos.3, 4, 6, 1 & 9; Valse, Op.38
Valses poeticos
Concert arabesques on themes by Johann Strauss, ‘On the Beautiful Blue Danube’

Benjamin Grosvenor (piano)

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 31 October, 2012
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Benjamin Grosvenor. ©Benjamin GrosvenorThe much-prized pianist Benjamin Grosvenor took another gradus on his way to Parnassus with his debut solo recital in the Southbank Centre’s International Piano Series. It was well worth the wait. The 20-year-old Grosvenor doesn’t give much away in terms of presentation. Piano teachers must purr with approval at his relaxed-but-ready stillness on the piano stool and at the economy of movement that clears a path for such old-fashioned attributes as types of touch, balance and weight to makes their marks. But his undemonstrative, profound virtuosity is only part of the picture. He has a range of colour and expression and a reflective intelligence that would be the envy of a pianist twice, three times his age – the sort of insight and wisdom that serves the music with disarming self-deprecation.

His way into the Bach Partita was romantically biased, with the textural aggrandisement of the ‘Overture’ sounding like a shadowy extension of the opening of Saint-Saëns’s Second Piano Concerto. The jewel-like clarity of the decorations sustained the music’s flow, and he produced a wonderfully veiled sound for the ‘Aria’ and ‘Sarabande’. Throughout, he maintained a fine balance between Romantic hindsight and Baroque sensibility. Initially the Yamaha concert grand had sounded a bit too broad and bright, but it was clearly up to Grosvenor’s tonal requirements.

For those used to the aristocratic grandeur of, say, Artur Rubinstein’s Chopin, Grosvenor’s take on the Opus 44 Polonaise will have come as a surprise. His speeds were volatile and he tended to bolt towards the climaxes; formally, it was rather clear-cut, so that the central mazurka sounded too isolated. As a whole, though, it had a terrific sense of occasion, and the fortissimos had an impressive muscular solidity. Grosvenor’s readjustment to the more artificial world of the Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise was finely judged, and his power in the Polonaise truly ‘brillante’.

The second part of his dance-based programme was all late-nineteenth-century territory. I particularly admired Grosvenor’s cool appraisal of the Scriabin Mazurkas, a view that accepted the fact that the mazurka, as Chopin knew, doesn’t thrive on too much sophistication but which took an ironic pleasure in the young Scriabin’s already burgeoning self-consciousness. Grosvenor addressed the music’s mannerisms, grotesqueries and whimsy with considerable subtlety and revealed how Scriabin himself in these prescient miniatures was playing with the genre. By contrast the Granados ‘poetic waltzes’ were just that – poetic, without ‘side’ and with a direct line to the spirit of the waltz. Grosvenor played them with mercurial responsiveness and with his magical calibration of touch that got a more complete work-out in Schulz-Evler’s staggering and aptly named Concert Arabesque on the Blue Danube waltz. There was so much going on that you got aural overload – this is music that fills in every crack – but Grosvenor performed it with awe-inspiring security.

His three-encore lap of honour gave us the Albeniz/Godowsky Tango, Liszt’s Gnomenreigen and Morton Gould’s Boogie-Woogie Etude – well, a chap’s got to show off now and then!

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