Benjamin Grosvenor Gives Solid House Debut

AustriaAustria Rameau, Bach-Busoni, Franck, Chopin: Benjamin Grosvenor (pianist). Schubert Saal of the Wiener Konzerthaus, Vienna. 26.11.2014 (SS)

Rameau                 Gavotte avec les Doubles de la Gavotte, from the Nouvelles Suites de Pièces de Clavecin
Bach-Busoni       Chaconne, from Partita No. 2 for Violin BWV 1004
Franck                   Prélude, Choral et Fugue, Op. 21
Chopin                   Barcarole, op. 60
Ballade no. 3 in A flat major, op. 47

Not a big Viennese institution, the lunchtime concert. Audiences congregate for the Vienna Phil at 11 on Sunday mornings, but there are no independent promoters colonizing the weekday lunch hours with recitals and chamber music, like Wigmore Hall on Mondays. Vienna, like a few cities, also lacks the luxury of a Wigmore Hall. (The Herrengasse’s fabled Bösendorfersaal, documented as an acoustic sister to the London venue, was torn down in 1913.) That same year the Konzerthaus opened, with its festive, very yellow 300-seat Schubert Saal offering a space that’s nowadays multi-purpose, used for pre-concert talks, receptions, chorus rehearsals. Musical events are also held here, occasionally at lunchtime, but it’s not a place where the house puts major artists.

It sounds like a modest welcome for Benjamin Grosvenor’s belated local debut, yet in a way it felt optimal to hear him for the first time actually outside of the London bubble, which is to say at a remove from British music journalism’s addiction to the fatuous hype which gave us wild claims about El Sistema, and ‘hottest composer on the planet’ Nico Muhly. Grosvenor has received his fair share of that and handled it in an encouragingly post-Adès, post-Rattle way, not getting himself trapped in a media narrative.

Those invested in the media narrative seem fond of asserting this still-developing pianist to be the finished product, which seemed to me, working off the basis of this lunchtime recital, a meaningful notion only insofar as the playing is never callow, and has probably never been callow. That’s a quality shared by a few current young pianists besides Grosvenor, though the seriousness he projects is all his own, and a major aspect of the playing. It makes his a safe pair of hands for the popular ‘majestic’ essaying of the Bach-Busoni Chaconne, which he carries off without carrying too far – no undue solemnizing here, and a steadfast, nigh-Presbyterian disavowal of the theatricality in Busoni’s arrangement. But an imposing performance all the same, with the severity of D minor coming through starkly.

A tendency to severity in the minor mode was a more limiting force in the two French items. This program was full of big, juicy repertoire and there was every indication Grosvenor saw his Rameau opener that way, but stiff articulation delivered the associations of a joyless warm-up for the fingers. A decadent rallying flourish gave the final Gavotte variation quite the lift, but this is not where invention and brilliance are exclusively concentrated and the other variations felt short-changed. Organists will tell you that Franck’s Prélude, Choral et Fugue is organ music written for the piano, and in a deeper sense it is organ music written for the piano – the left hand spreading a chordal ripple across half the keyboard before crossing over to pluck out the chorale melody is a purely pianistic effect. The writing also shakes off the ultra-cheesy melodrama of overripe organ works like the Grande Pièce Symphonique, yet still does that very Franckian thing of wafting incense one minute and being very voluptuous the next. I didn’t hear much of that in Grosvenor’s performance, which underlined more the respectability of the piece, and was in itself perfectly respectable but also a little dour. The chorale’s spread chords in particular were rather leaden, by omission of the pointed marking of the melody and big dynamic contrasts which are there to counterbalance the lack of rhythmic profile. But Grosvenor seemed cautious to avoid even the suggestion of ostentation.

Would the aversion to bombast also explain the oddly muted left hand in the third Chopin Ballade? This seemed less clear-cut, but the woolly softness offered little musical enhancement. Left hand aside, this was elegant but workmanlike Chopin playing, and Grosvenor was really much better in the Barcarole, which had that spark missing from the Rameau and Franck, and even panache reminiscent of Zimerman in the climactic octaves.

This was an accomplished recital by one of the most serious-minded young pianists to emerge from the UK in recent years. The soberness is intertwined very much with musical judgement – in touch, pedalling and phrasing, everything Grosvenor does is ‘well-judged’ according to classical notions of what that means – but seems somehow closely policed in reductive binary terms, whereby the playing must either be sober and tasteful, or else it’s Lang Lang. That’s overstating it to make a point, but when Grosvenor is freer and more spontaneous, as in the Barcarole, he offers glimpses of something much rarer than good taste.

Seb Smallshaw

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