Benjamin Grosvenor, Piano, Works by Rameau, J.S. Bach, Franck, Chopin and Granados, Vancouver Playhouse, March 6, 2015.

I was impressed with pianist Benjamin Grosvenor’s Vancouver debut recital two years ago and I think that he mainly lived up to the reputation bestowed upon him by the British public -- a true ‘darling’ among the country’s young artists, vying with or even surpassing violinist Nicola Benedetti. The pianist revealed a strong seriousness of purpose, clean execution, and strong structural power in the way that he navigated works.   The feeling that his touch and tone production is solid to the point of being almost ‘set in stone’ certainly hints at a select company: Emil Gilels, Nelson Freire, Stephen Kovacevich, to name a few.  Nonetheless, one thing I also felt then was that the shorter works on his program came off better than the one longer one, an early Beethoven sonata that seemed too rigid.

I don’t think many of my views have changed on the basis of this second recital, which again featured smaller and less well-known works, although I can see certain tendencies more clearly.  After a robust Rameau Gavotte and Variations – not for Baroque purists -- and a finely crafted and powerful Bach-Busoni Chaconne in D minor, the main work in the first half was the relatively obscure Prelude, Chorale and Fugue (1884) by Cesar Franck, probably the highlight of this composer’s sparse contribution to the solo piano repertoire.  I have always liked this piece, still prizing the only two recordings available in the early days, those of Witold Małcużyński and Aldo Ciccolini.  Written in the composer’s distinctive ‘cyclical form’, it makes clear allusions to his larger body of organ writing and the contemporaneous Symphonic Variations.  Grosvenor’s performance was quite perceptive in revealing these links, and he articulated it with care, balance and commitment.  Nonetheless, while the construction of the work is formal, I think that the interpretation would have gained from a fuller appreciation of the work’s underlying rhapsodic, melancholy flow. 

In the Chopin Barcarolle and in the third Ballade, the cleanness of articulation, the exquisite suspension of the softer lines, and the grand dramatic pushes were impressive -- sometimes stunning -- though the interpretations ultimately seemed more execution-oriented than involving and personal.  The longest of the works in the second half, the delightful three pieces from Granados’ Goyescas, were also delivered with a clear line and rhythmic certainty, no more so than in the wonderful closing “El pelete.”  Enjoyable but, again, relatively objective; I did miss the Spanish accents, natural rubato, and indeed the joy that de Larrocha and others have found.

This was a fine recital in many respects, but I did find it slightly cool, revealing that Benjamin Grosvenor is still somewhat craft based and careful, not yet giving full reign to his own emotional idiosyncrasy and flexibility of utterance.  His approach to all the works displayed sterling tonal control, yet they all roughly started from the same deliberative foundation, often working methodically and seriously to very powerful statements.  Indeed, sometimes too powerful -- and over-pedaled -- for my taste, and frequently too serious.  In the French and Spanish works, there seemed to be few glimpses yet of the rhythmic fluidity, carefree charm and warmth that can really make these pieces come alive. Sometimes I think the problem is that the pianist commits himself to articulating structural blocks that are too large in size, limiting his options for a natural flexibility and caprice.  Nevertheless, for a young pianist with Grosvenor’s potential, it is probably better to err in this direction than its alternative.

While many of the short works on the program did seem like encores, I am happy to say that the ‘actual’ encores brought greater expressive freedom and probably the most captivating playing of the night.  The melancholic lines of Mompou’s The Fountain and the Clock were savoured nicely, with undoubted feeling, while there was no lack of spontaneous sparkle and delight in Dohnanyi’s Concert Etude, Op. 28 No. 6.


© Geoffrey Newman 2015