Benjamin Grosvenor, piano: Works by Bach, Beethoven, Scriabin, Chopin and Strauss - Chan Centre, April 7, 2013

Benjamin Grosvenor, piano

Benjamin Grosvenor, piano

British audiences and media have waited a long time for a homegrown young pianist that they could really rave about. They seem to have found it in 20 year old Benjamin Grosvenor. After winning in the keyboard section of the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition at age 11, this artist’s trajectory has only increased, now being the youngest artist to perform at the BBC Proms and named the Gramophone Magazine’s Young Artist of the Year for 2012.  His first CD of Chopin, Liszt and Ravel (Decca 0289-478-3206) also won an award in the Gramophone’s ‘Instrumental’ category and his second, of Gershwin, Saint-Saens and Ravel (Decca 0289-478-3527, just released), has received equally stunning international reviews.

As Benjamin Grosvenor came on stage to perform five Bach ‘transcriptions’ at the opening, we immediately saw a young artist of considerable modesty but obvious inner strength. The beauty of his strong, firm tone, his ability to give shape and point to phrases, and the sheer exactness of his execution stood out right away. Here was beautifully poised playing from a young man who knew exactly how to move Bach forward with balance and control, only slowing reverentially for the moments of radiant beauty one can find here.

I also cannot think of a more fresh or natural response to the Scriabin Mazurka’s, tonally and expressively subtle with superb rhythmic control. It seemed as if every note of these works was spun out with a jeweled splendour, so clean and musical was the playing. The following Chopin Polonaise and the Strauss piano transcription of ‘Blue Danube’ allowed the pianist to let everything out. And what tonal range he has. His ability to produce a fully commanding yet integrated piano sound at ultra-loud volumes really takes one to the next level, as does his ability to bring both life and variety to both the loudest and softest passages. Hearing the symmetry and weight he brings to his piano ‘runs’ has to be seen to be believed. And, in all this, there is hint of wild abandon too. While one might disagree with the sheer ‘size’ of both these interpretations, there was no sense of going over the top. This artist has the strongest conviction in what he does, and his granite-like structural control simply brings the many diverse elements of these works together on his terms.

It is perhaps no surprise that the one performance that revealed some immaturity was the longest and most difficult on the programme: the Beethoven Sonata No. 4. Remarkably accurate and structurally-cogent playing again (with trills to die for) but, I think, somewhat stiff overall. By concentrating on the clipped quality of much of the writing he certainly was able to highlight the structural contrasts in the work. But he did not quite pin down the whim or lyricism that fits in between. At points, he surely needed a more relaxed expressiveness to let the music breathe and expand.

It is perhaps the greatest compliment to Benjamin Grosvenor that he does not really remind me of the many glittering young piano virtuosos we have seen over the past decade. There is very little ‘show’ here: any seeming display seems to be grounded in something deeper within. His combination of both precision and passion, coupled with his remarkable tonal control, natural fluency and architectural command possibly takes me back to the legendary Russians such as Emil Gilels. In his clean and jeweled articulation, perhaps there is also a hint of Stephen Kovacevich too. Such comparisons are of course dangerous since Benjamin Grosvenor is still so young. But there is no doubt that there is something uniquely commanding about this artist. While his current recordings have been truly eye-opening, let’s see how he moves to the bigger and more serious works. 

© Geoffrey Newman 2013