A Brilliant Recital by Benjamin Grosvenor

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bach, Chopin, Scriabin, Granados, Schulz-Evler: Benjamin Grosvenor (piano), Queen Elizabeth Hall, London 31.10.2012 (RB)

Bach: Partita No. 4 in D major, BWV828
Chopin: Polonaise in F sharp minor, Op 44
Andante spianato and Grande polonaise brillante, Op 22
Scriabin:  Mazurkas, Op 3
Valse in A flat, Op 38
Granados: 8 Valses poeticos
Adolf Schulz-Evler: Concert arabesques on theme by Johann Strauss, ‘On the Beautiful Blue Danube’

Benjamin Grosvenor first came to prominence in 2004 when he won the keyboard final of the BBC’s Young Musician of the Year Competition when he was aged only 11. Since then he has had something of a meteoric rise, becoming the youngest soloist to play on the first night of the Proms and the youngest-ever British musician to be signed by Decca (the first of his discs won a Gramophone award). There was, therefore, a considerable air of expectation around this recital and it was good to see a packed Queen Elizabeth Hall. Grosvenor had chosen the dance as the underpinning theme for this recital from the early baroque dances of Bach to Schulz-Evler’s titanic transcription of Strauss’ immortal ‘Blue Danube’ waltz.

While Grosvenor’s technique was impeccable throughout, I was not entirely convinced by his interpretation of Bach’s D major partita. He appeared to approach the work in a very cool and understated way and the opening Ouverture lacked the grandeur and richness of sound which this piece needs, while the ensuing Fugue did not dance in the way that it should. I preferred his approach to the more reflective Allemande, where the lines were exquisitely shaped, and the Sarabande, where Grosvenor conjured a luminous singing tone from the piano. Grosvenor captured the playfulness and brilliant quality of the Courante but at times I would have welcomed greater weight and depth of tone. The final Gigue had bounce and rhythmic energy but the voicing was not always as clear as it could have been. I noticed also that Grosvenor chose not to play any of the repeats – perhaps understandably given that this was already a long and demanding programme. However, playing the repeats would have perhaps given him more of an opportunity to explore and experiment with this great music.

Chopin’s F sharp minor Polonaise is a dark and thrilling piece and Grosvenor’s technical control was again immaculate. However, I thought some elements of the piece were insufficiently characterised, particularly in the outer sections which appeared to lack the dramatic flair and emotional charge that they need. The fleet-fingered figurations in the middle section were brilliantly controlled and Grosvenor succeeded in achieving real poetic beauty in the lilting melody before the reprise of the opening theme. Grosvenor’s performance of Chopin’s Andante spianato was the first highlight of the evening for me. The singing tone had a directness and tenderness that seemed particularly apt while the filigree was delineated with incredible precision and lightness of touch. The Grande polonaise finished the first half of the concert on a high note with Grosvenor tossing off the pyrotechnics with insouciant ease, although I felt this was an overly cerebral performance and I would have welcomed more vigour and swagger in this great crowd pleaser.

The music in the second half seemed to play more to Grosvenor’s strengths and he clearly had a greater emotional connection with the music. Scriabin’s Op 3 Mazurkas were written in 1888 when the composer was still a teenager and were disparagingly referred to as ‘faded valentines’. There was much greater freedom and elasticity in Grosvenor’s playing and he seemed to enjoy the perfumed and exotic harmonies in the third and first mazurkas. In the sixth mazurka, Grosvenor was highly inventive with the quirky and playful elements of the piece while in the ninth he made much of the heady drama before a period of quiet reflection and communion with the music. Grosvenor’s playing of the fourth mazurka, where opulent and rich harmonies are juxtaposed with the dry rhythmic figurations, was superb and showed immense control of tone and texture. The mazurkas were followed by Scriabin’s extraordinary Waltz in A flat – the first waltz of the night – which was written in 1903 and shows the composer beginning to push at the boundaries of form and tonality. Grosvenor conjured a rich palette of tone colours from the piano and displayed some wonderful layering of sound. The sense of disquiet and disintegration at the heart of the piece was wonderfully characterised.

Granados’ Valses poeticos were written around 1887 and consist of a prelude and an unbroken series of eight waltzes. These pieces need to move seamlessly from the salon to the ballroom and there is scope for some vivid and stylish characterisation. The opening prelude was played with classical poise and elegance while Grosvenor’s performance of the first waltz was dreamy and enchanting. He succeeded in moving seamlessly through the gamut of emotions in this chain of miniatures, from the sadness of the third waltz to the ebullience of the fourth and the gusto of the fifth. The reprise of the first waltz had a bitter sweet tenderness that showed this pianist at his best.

It is always a good idea to conclude a concert with a glittering show piece and Schulz-Evler’s transcription of the ‘Blue Danube Waltz’ is certainly a work that is designed to bring the house down. Josef Lhévinne left a very famous and electrifying recording in 1928 which effectively put the piece on the map. Grosvenor showed astonishing technical control at the opening of the piece where the main theme emerges over light arabesques. He proceeded to negotiate all of the treacherous technical difficulties with enormous ease while milking the more reflective elements of the piece. Altogether, a barnstorming performance that was rewarded with a standing ovation.

Grosvenor played three encores: Godowsky’s transcription of Albeniz’s Tango which was heady and atmospheric; Liszt’s Gnomenreigen which was light and brilliant; and Morton Gould’s Boogie-woogie Etude, which Grosvenor played as an encore at the Proms and is rapidly becoming an audience favourite. The Gould was an exhilarating end to this concert from a brilliant young pianist.

Robert Beattie