United Kingdom Rameau, Bach-Busoni, Franck, Chopin, Granados, Benjamin Grosvenor (piano), Barbican Hall, London, 23.1.2015 (RB)
Rameau – Gavotte and variations
Bach-Busoni – Chaconne in D minor
Franck – Prelude Choral and Fugue
Chopin -Barcarolle in F Sharp minor Op 60
Mazurka in F minor Op 63 No. 2
Mazurka in C Sharp minor Op 30 No. 4
Ballade No. 3 in A :Flat major Op 47
Granados – Goyescas (excerpts)
I first saw Benjamin Grosvenor two years ago when he gave a rather mixed recital at the Queen Elizabeth Hall (review). Some of his playing then was very good but other staples of the repertoire were under characterised and a little bland. What a difference two years can make in music. Now, at the grand old age of 22 ,Grosvenor has clearly developed into a very accomplished and serious musician.
He opened his recital with two sets of variations from the baroque era. Rameau’s Gavotte et Doubles (or Variations) is the final piece in his Nouvelles Suite de Pièces de Clavecin and it has been championed by many pianists including Meyer and Cherkassky and more recently by Hewitt and Tharaud. Like Tharaud, Grosvenor uses all the resources of the modern concert grand but in this performance I felt there was a nod back to the golden days of Cherkassky. The ornamentation in the opening theme was tasteful and elaborate with Grosvenor coaxing Romantic colours and sonorities from his Steinway. He created some gorgeous textures with the whispering semiquavers in the opening sections while the later variations unfolded with the necessary degree of brilliance and élan. Occasionally, I wondered if he might have used a little less pedal and made the inner lines crisper and clearer. Notwithstanding that, this was a colourful and imaginative interpretation of Rameau’s keyboard music that worked well.
Busoni’s transcription of the magnificent final chaconne from Bach’s Second Violin Partita is one of the greatest transcriptions from the late Romantic era. Grosvenor invested the opening chords with weight and depth and he conjured an impressive range of dynamics and sonorities from the piano. The pianissimo playing was particularly good with Grosvenor doing an excellent job of drawing the audience in and projecting the sound in the Barbican Hall. His articulation was also extremely good although some of the passage work was a little untidy towards the end. I wondered if Grosvenor could have perhaps done a little more to sustain the intensity of the work in the later sections. Having said that, there was much to admire here and the grandeur, the emotional depth and the structural integrity of the piece all shone through in this performance.
The final piece in the first half was Franck’s Prelude Choral and Fugue which the composer wrote in 1884 towards the end of his life. Grosvenor produced a dreamy, soft grained sound for the figurations of the opening section and his phrasing was fluid and flexible, allowing the music space to breathe. There were some imaginative tonal contrasts in the subsequent section, perfectly evoking Franck’s chromatic harmonies and organ sonorities. The Choral was a mesmerising piece of playing with Grosvenor evoking a luminous glow from his Steinway and wonderfully sustaining the line and allowing the music to build in an incremental way. The voicing of the Fugue was very clear but Grosvenor also found the necessary space to explore the composer’s rich harmonic progressions. He used an impressive palette of tone colours throughout and seemed to be alive to every nuance and phrase of the music. The final section was allowed to build in a powerful and elemental way with Grosvenor layering the sound perfectly. This was an extremely impressive piece of playing and a great way to end the first half of the concert.
The second half opened with a selection of large- and short-scale works by Chopin. The opening of the Barcarolle was a little tentative but Grosvenor soon got into his stride, showing us his ability to make the piano sing and giving us some elegant shaping of the line. The filigree playing was particularly fine and Grosvenor succeeded in producing a varied and beautiful sound throughout. He captured the atmospheric melancholy of the F minor Mazurka perfectly and did an excellent job bringing out the caprice and swagger of the companion piece in C Sharp minor. He gave a very confident and accomplished rendition of the Third Ballade but while much of the playing was very fine, the ideas were a little too generalised and I’m not sure he really had anything new to say about the piece.
Grosvenor concluded his recital with three pieces from Goyescas – a great choice and the best part of the recital for me. He captured the sense of longing and romantic rapture in The Maiden and the Nightingale and the song of the nightingale at the end was played with an ethereal delicacy. The Ballad of Love and Death was a stunning piece of playing – Grosvenor did a wonderful job of summoning the spectral shadows at the beginning of the piece and gave us some glorious changes in tone colour. In the adagio section towards the end of the piece he seemed to find the poetic heart of the music in an absolutely gorgeous piece of piano playing. He also captured perfectly the lightness and dancing quality of El Pelele – the rich colours of the Iberian peninsula were all on display as the infectious exuberance of the music brought the recital to an exhilarating conclusion.
This was world-class playing from Grosvenor – let’s hope that Decca have the good sense to ask him to record Goyescas.