Benjamin Grosvenor

Sonata in D, K311
Jeux d’eau
Valses nobles et sentimentales
Chanson bohème
Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise brillante, Op.22
Nocturne in F sharp, Op.15/2; Nocturne in E flat, Op.55/2
Ballade No.1 in G minor, Op.23

Benjamin Grosvenor (piano)

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 6 November, 2006
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

This was a hugely demanding programme musically and technically, which would have taxed any mature pianist at the height of his or her powers. All credit therefore to the astonishing 14-year-old Benjamin Grosvenor, winner of BBC Young Musician in 2004, that he should have given a recital for which virtually no allowances on technical grounds were necessary and any musical reservations needed to be viewed in the context of a tremendous achievement.

The printed programme came complete with a somewhat self-congratulatory insert from EMI Classics, which would have done credit to a Downing Street spinmeister. Whilst commercial support for the Arts is always welcome, EMI Classics appears to be offering very little other than its endorsement and the opportunity for Grosvenor “to be introduced to other artists on EMI’s roster, attend recording sessions and gain a broad understanding of the recording process. EMI will also assist, where possible, in Benjamin’s development as a musician”. The subtext to EMI’s support appears to be: “He’s ours. Hands off”.

From a purely musical standpoint Mozart’s D major Sonata received perhaps the most satisfying performance of the evening. This is ironic since it is hardly Mozart at his most profound but Grosvenor played its opening movement ‘con spirito’ as marked and also found real tenderness in the extended Andante. This was stylish, sparkling playing with notably crisp fingerwork that stayed well within classical bounds.

Both of Ravel’s pieces were both remarkable for their sheer aplomb and security. In Jeu d’eau (which Ravel considered his first real masterpiece) the fountain’s waters flowed rather swiftly. About the ‘Valses’, there have to be a few reservations. There is an underlying classicism, an element of bittersweet understatement to these pieces, whereas at moments Grosvenor might have been playing the piano version of La valse. Having used the sustaining pedal extremely sparingly in the Mozart, he did precisely the opposite here, although to his credit the actual sound he produced – even in the loudest passages – was never less than beautiful. Finally though we got to the music’s tranquil inward heart in the ‘Epilogue’.

Moritz Moszkowski’s hilarious take on Bizet’s “Carmen” was delivered with real panache and brought the first half to an exuberant conclusion.

Many sportsmen now reach their technical peak earlier and earlier in their teens, and perhaps the same is becoming true of the physical act of playing a musical instrument. Framed by two of Chopin’s greatest works, the second half was something of a disappointment. Never less than fluent and invariably beautiful as sound, Grosvenor’s Chopin seemed for the most part to glide over the music’s surface – the F sharp Nocturne encapsulated what was missing, its outer sections lacking poise and restraint so that the central more agitated episode (and the piece’s one climax) passed without really registering. Nonetheless what a tremendous achievement to play the G minor Ballade with this degree of éclat. Grosvenor is not exactly short on chutzpah and with time should develop into a major pianist, provided his very facility at the keyboard is not over-exploited.

By way of an encore Gershwin’s “Love Walked In” was given with affection.

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