An impressive, varied recital from Benjamin Grosvenor

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bach, Schumann, Ravel, and Prokofiev: Benjamin Grosvenor (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 7.5.2023. (MB)

Benjamin Grosvenor © Andrej Grilc

Bach-Busoni – ‘Chaconne’ from Partita No.2 in D minor for solo violin, BWV 1004
Schumann – Fantasie in C major, Op.17
Ravel – Le Tombeau de Couperin
Prokofiev – Piano Sonata No.7 in B-flat major, Op.83

Back to Wigmore Hall, for the second of my three ‘Coronation weekend’ concerts there. This evening, it was Benjamin Grosvenor’s turn, presenting a solidly ‘repertoire’ selection of works by Bach (with a little, or more than a little, help from Busoni), Schumann, Ravel, and Prokofiev, and delighting another full audience.

The Bach-Busoni Chaconne received a stern, granitic reading, alert to its structure and determined to communicate it. The opening statement was presented starkly, almost impassively, as if for organo pleno. It took some time for instrument and pianist to yield. This was definitely Bach – and Busoni – for the Steinway, for its particular colours and capabilities. For there were, ultimately, sections of mysterious liminality, often allied to chromaticism, which gained in that quality by the height of contrast. Grosvenor did not take an easy, nor a well-trodden route, but his performance had its own virtues and rewards, and nothing to prove.

Schumann’s Fantasie opened in similarly forthright fashion, though it more quickly drew back in recognition of one of the many dialectics that lie at the heart of this work. Its first movement was directed, yet with space for digression, communication of structure again to the fore. Integrative tendencies were strong, necessarily so, without flattening difference, motivic integrity quietly coming more and more strongly to the fore. Schumann’s mixture of pride and underlying vulnerability in the second movement’s march theme often puts me in mind, however anachronistically, of Elgar; so it did here, indeed not only of Elgar as composer but also as no-nonsense conductor. Such relative plain-spokenness nonetheless continued to leave room for contrast in the third and final movement. Schumann’s startling anticipations of Brahms’s half-lit futures were given their due, without exaggeration in a patient performance whose patience ultimately paid off. Grosvenor’s path through this difficult, marvellous work was not only successfully presented but vindicated.

That said, it was in the second half, in which Grosvenor seemed more willing from time and time to let go, that I at least reaped greater rewards. The character of each movement in Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin was deeply considered, as was its contribution toward a greater whole. This was not a stereotypically ‘Gallic’ performance, though nor was it unidiomatic; one sensed, rather, that it arose from the notes and from Grosvenor’s desire to act, rather than to impose himself, upon them. A similar directness to that heard in much of the first half characterised the Prélude. Again, it took time to yield, but again it did, subtly — for that was all that was needed. A gently constructivist Fugue followed, the sadness of Ravel’s conception very much growing out of the writing rather than sentimentally applied to it — and thus all the more moving for it. A nicely swung Forlane and an energetically brusque Rigaudon, voicing commendably clear, prepared the way for a Menuet that took its time, benefiting greatly from the space provided. Lightly nostalgic, again not mistaking sentiment for sentimentality, it emerged as the bearer of grief with considerable cumulative power. It and the concluding, exhilarating Toccata, heard very much in the Menuet’s shadow, haunted our present and, one could readily fancy, our past too.

If there were anger as well as sadness to that pugnacious conclusion, so too was there in the case of another master of the toccata: Prokofiev, in his Seventh Piano Sonata. Here I found an urgency not always so readily apparent in the first half, its virtues notwithstanding. Bold and direct, indeed ferocious, the first movement seemed to recapture the necromancy of the composer’s youth (and indeed of The Fiery Angel). The second movement flowed swiftly, emphasising protean, post-Scriabin qualities that made it sound intriguingly strange once more: rootless in more than one sense. And finally, a toccata on steroids, the celebrated 7/8 Precipitato dash to the close. It was duly relentless, yet not without chiaroscuro that enabled us to hear and, in the white heat of the moment, to feel the composer’s transformation of material.

Mark Berry

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