Piano Recitals by Javier Perianes and Benjamin Grosvenor, Playhouse and Chan Centre, May 4 and 7, 2017.

There couldn’t have been a happier way to close the Vancouver Recital Society’s season than appearances by the youthful Spaniard Javier Perianes and the still precociously-young British ‘darling’ Benjamin Grosvenor.  Both pianists gave their third concert here, and each has just released a new album: the former, a Schubert sonata recital for Harmonia Mundi; the latter, an album of enticingly-contrasted pieces called ‘Hommage’ for Decca. The two recitals offered a study in different styles of pianism but it goes without saying that both artists exhibited exalted keyboard command and gave many special moments to cherish.

The second half of the Perianes recital – featuring Spanish pieces with a Grenada theme -- was probably the most riveting of all.  Here the pianist literally left the audience gasping for breath with his wonderfully rich tone, architectural sense, and penchant for rustic colour. The sense of natural rubato in‘El Albayzin’ from Albeniz’ Iberia and de Falla’s 6 pieces from El Amor Brujo was disarming, coaxing all the Spanish ‘spirits’ out of the music with ravishing pianissimos while finding a wonderful degree of anticipation in the music’s motion. Perianes demonstrated his mastery of shifting moods and colours, giving full vent to the alternating moments of sensuality, caprice and relaxation.  This playing was remarkably fresh, and charmed by delicious rhythmic spring and tonal beauty. The approach also worked very well in Debussy’s ‘La Soirée de Grenade’ from Estampes and in the two related Preludes.  Perianes’ sense of discipline and structure were unerring and the tangibility of feeling he unearthed was captivating.

It is some distance to Schubert’s Drei Klavierstücke D 946 and the A major Sonata D 664, and here I did not think Perianes’ colour and keyboard strength fit as naturally. The Klavierstücke were impressive from a structural/dramatic standpoint -- and these works can stand ‘big’ treatment – but Perianes’ rustic interpretation of Schubert’s lyrical musings struck me as little off. The composer’s lyrical response is not exactly ‘folk’ in character; rather, more intimate and personal. Nonetheless, it was interesting to hear Schubert’s more songful expressions as if wafting pleasurably through small village squares. There was lots of energy and tempestuousness – and enviable keyboard control – to carry things through, and some of the more vibrant rhythmic articulation had me thinking of the dance. The lovely opening movement of the A major Sonata had an athletic feel, buoyantly projected with a fine sweep, but again intimacy and tenderness was not its strong suit.  Both here and in the following Andante, the music was moved forward through strong dynamic contrasts (some of the playing was very soft) and a sense of ‘folk’ colour, but not by those subtle inflections within a phrase that allow us to glimpse the innocent vulnerability of the composer’s expression.  There was still ample feeling and architecture throughout, especially in the slow movement, even if the pianist sought larger and more generalized emotional contours than were ideal. Enjoyable on its own terms, but unmistakably a young man’s Schubert.

Benjamin Grosvenor also strikes the keys with an enviable touch and solidity, bringing striking clarity and evenness to his runs while also opening out to the firmest expressions at the bottom of the instrument. This is a very beautiful sound which walks arm-in-arm with pristine delineation. Grosvenor’s sense of structure is notable: he almost divides each work into ‘blocks’ and then chisels out each with a myriad of discerning tonal weights and projections. The result is very exacting, tight-knit pianism, perhaps driven more by ‘the notes’ than a long lyrical arch but always building an organic sense of motion and cohesion.

The one real winner in this recital was the Mozart B-flat major Sonata, which revealed the best control at a smaller scale that I have yet seen from the pianist. There wasn’t anything meek about the opening Allegro, moving the music forward strongly with tight phrases and a sharp angularity that fleetingly took me back to Lili Kraus. In the Andante, it was the pianist’s sense of complete involvement, combined with his musical shape and detailing, that really won me over, and he followed this up with a finale of great concentration, balance and refined feeling. 

Grosvenor’s treatment of Schumann’s Arabesque was also noteworthy for the symmetry and consistency of his phrasing, giving this short piece a nicely-jeweled cohesion. I was less convinced by the Beethoven ‘Moonlight’ Sonata.  While there is now a trend towards treating the famous Adagio more quickly, the pianist’s serenade-like tempo did not fully take me to a feeling of consuming stillness, beautifully as it moved forth. The shaping and rhythmic point of the Allegretto also seemed more in the style of the Schumann we had just heard, while the finale was projected at a much larger scale – a stunning mixture of power and motion. I did not feel that everything was cut from the same cloth.

The second half of this recital exhibited just how much control Grosvenor now has over the instrument.  His reading of the short Sonata No. 2 of Scriabin was both poised and powerfully structured though coming slightly short of the composer’s full passionate flame. The two pieces from Granados’ Goyescas tied nicely to the spirit of Perianes’ recital, and illustrated the sculpted elegance and ‘fineness’ of tonal control within Grosvenor’s arsenal.  This traversal was fully successful in articulating the music’s variety without perhaps finding Perianes’ natural flexibility and colour. Liszt’s Rhapsodie espagnole was the brilliant tour-de-force, revealing the pianist’s sterling talent in combining agility and commanding tonal strength, giving the work real character. This was most impressive.

I think this was, by a good margin, the best recital I have seen from Benjamin Grosvenor, showing a substantially greater range of insight, stylistic penetration and tonal control. I still think he proceeds a little too much in ‘blocks’ and structural delineation – as finely chiseled and integrated as everything is – but I am certain a greater lyrical freedom is just around the corner. On the other hand, with Javier Perianes, it is rare to find a young pianist with such a penetrating sense of atmosphere and colour.  It would be difficult to find two back-to-back piano recitals more inspiring than these.


© Geoffrey Newman 2017