A Dazzling Recital by Benjamin Grosvenor

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mendelssohn, Chopin, Ravel, Liszt: Benjamin Grosvenor (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 24.6.2016. (RB)

Mendelssohn: Prelude and Fugue in E minor, Op 35 No. 1; Prelude and Fugue in F minor, Op 35 No. 5

Chopin: Piano Sonata No. 2 in B Flat minor, Op 35 ‘Funeral March’

Ravel: Le tombeau de Couperin

Liszt: Venezia e Napoli S162

It is not so many years ago that 11-year-old Benjamin Grosvenor first came to prominence as the winner of the keyboard final in the BBC’s Young Musician of the Year Competition. I have watched Grosvenor’s recitals with increasing admiration over the last few years and this most recent performance confirmed to me that the at the age of 23 he is now one of the world’s leading pianists.

The recital opened with two of Mendelssohn’s preludes and fugues which the composer wrote over a ten-year period before finally publishing six of them in 1837. The E minor prelude is marked Allegro con fuoco and Grosvenor did a marvellous job conjuring up the turbulent engulfing textures while bringing intensity and purpose to the distinctive Mendelssohnian melody. The fugue was beautifully voiced and had a wonderful lucidity and expressive beauty. Grosvenor showed us an impressive range of touch and articulation while maintaining the structure and reflecting the composer’s shifts of mood. The F minor prelude and fugue is performed less often but Grosvenor’s potent advocacy may help the work to grow in popularity. I particularly enjoyed his handling of the passage-work in the fugue where the knotty lines were played cleanly and with increasing brilliance.

Chopin’s B Flat minor Sonata was famously described by Schumann as four of the composer’s most unruly children. The four movements show Chopin at his most daring and innovative and it is one of the pinnacles of the piano repertoire. Grosvenor’s performance reminded me of some of the old school performances of Chopin from players such as Rubinstein or Perahia and it was a masterclass in how this music should be played. He brought depth and gravitas to the opening bars which famously allude to Beethoven’s final piano sonata. In the ensuing Doppio movimento he demonstrated a keen musical intellect fully able to probe the thematic relationships whilst creating highly imaginative colours and textures. Grosvenor brought rhythmic energy and lightness of touch to the scherzo and a gorgeous burnished tone to the expressive trio. The famous funeral march opened with a sombre tread and Grosvenor put us in touch with the piercing sense of loss at the heart of the music. The middle section in D flat was a heartfelt song full of hurt and pain – this performance reminded me of Chopin’s indebtedness to the bel canto repertoire. Grosvenor showed extraordinary command of touch, timbre and dynamics in the extraordinary final movement and he played the very fast unison octaves with an impressive degree of clarity – the sweep and howl of the wind over the headstones was evoked in an exceptionally vivid way.

The second half opened with Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin which the composer wrote in the second decade of the 20th Century. The movements are based on those of a traditional Baroque suite and each movement is dedicated to friends of the composer who died fighting in the First World War. The very high level of performance which ran through the first half continued in the second as Grosvenor showed us what a fine exponent he is of Ravel. The playing was tasteful and nuanced, the dynamics extremely well judged and the pedal used sparingly. The whirling lines of the prelude were shaped beautifully and played in a clean, almost Classical way while the harpsichord-style decoration was tastefully executed. Grosvenor bought a disarming sense of charm and innocence to the fugue and the voicing was once again exemplary. He brought an emotional resonance to the music and underscored the harmonic shifts in a subtle and evocative way. There was a light satirical edge to the Forlane and a gorgeous tonal palette to the Menuet. The final toccata was taken at full throttle and was full of bustling energy and rich lyricism.

The final work on the programme was Liszt’s Venezia e Napoli which the composer included as a bouquet of encores to the second book of his Années de Pèlerinage. In the opening ‘Gondoliera’, Grosvenor embroidered the barcarolle melody with exquisite arabesques and ornamentation while the sound of the ripples, splashing figurations and movement of the gondola through the lagoon were brilliantly realised. The central ‘Canzone’ with its rumbling tremolos was intense and dramatic and the melody projected forcefully. The pyrotechnics of the final ‘Tarantella’ were dispatched with virtuoso aplomb – Grosvenor showed us dazzling finger-work before dispatching Liszt’s numerous cadenzas with consummate ease. The coda was a rousing, adrenalin-filled tour de force which brought some members of the audience to their feet.

This was a dazzling piano recital by Benjamin Grosvenor – to play with such technical assurance, musical understanding and depth of feeling at the age of 23 is quite a feat.

Robert Beattie


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