Benjamin Grosvenor—début

November 2011

Benjamin Grosvenor is unquestionably one of the rising stars of the piano circuit. Still in his teens, he was the youngest ever performer to appear at the First Night of the London Proms. Consequently there has been keen anticipation of this, his début album—not least with all the buzz generated by other pianistic neophytes like Ingolf Wunder and James Rhodes. It is also the current fashion to include exceptionally challenging repertoire on one’s initial foray into CD-land—Alice Sara Ott with Liszt’s Transcendental Studies, Yuja Wang and Khatia Batiashvili with the Liszt Sonata, James Rhodes with …well, everything. Not to be outdone, Grosvenor has elected to include the pinnacle work of piano difficulty, Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit—a riskily hubristic choice.

He opens his CD with the four Chopin Scherzi, but we are immediately notified of his out-of-the-ordinariness by his programming choice. He takes the wisdom that the Scherzi were not intended as a cycle as an invitation to change the running order, and to separate them with three Chopin Nocturnes. And here’s the clever bit: he chooses a key sequence of the reordered Chopin works that is really very astute: whether done for dramatic character and purely accidental, or a deliberate application of 19th century diatonic key relationships, it is nonetheless very effective. They run B minor, F sharp major, E major, E minor, C sharp minor, C sharp minor, again, B flat minor. This is the sort of key scheme that one finds in, say, Schubert. If one were to nitpick the actual performances, it might be observed that Grosvenor plays a nudge faster than he can completely bring the scherzi off. As a consequence his touch is tad uneven in the hyperfast passages, and the rhythms are occasionally not quite under control especially where uniformity is required, and now and again a bit thoughtlessly offhand. The Scherzo that comes off best is the last in his order, the third in B flat minor. But, taken as a whole these are wonderfully sensitive and illuminating performances—it’s a bit unfair to expect absolute perfection in a teenager’s playing. (But, just to be Devil’s advocate, let me suggest you have a listen to the recently issued 1960 recordings on Testament of the 18-year old Pollini playing the Chopin Études. What do you think?).

After this carefully designed concert-half, Grosvenor inserts a buffer-group of smaller pieces, two Chopin Songs as transcribed by Liszt, and Liszt’s own En Rêve. They function as a moment of rhapsodic pause after the formally lucid Scherzi—aural sorbet, perhaps.

And yet… Nice though other repertoire is, let’s be honest, all we virtuosophiles coveted this CD for Grosvenor’s Gaspard de la Nuit. Almost as good as Stephen Osborne, only Jean-Efflam Bavouzet really trumps him for technique, control, and touch. His almost retiring performance of Ondine—arguably the most delicate of all piano works—is a marvel of poetic subtlety, with the relative dynamic weight of all the gestures measured exactly, and an almost crystalline perfection to the passagework. He takes the piece at a scary lick, and this listener was agonised by the risk of even a moment of imperfection. One needn’t have worried—this is consummate musicianship married to serious pianistic chops. The tempo enables him to achieve a real sense of melodic contour and his central climax is a goosepimpler. The middle movement, le Gibet, is one of the most implacably grim stretches in all music, and Grosvenor’s is more shadowy than truly devastated—one must go to Bavouzet to experience the full dark horror of this work. Grosvenor’s Scarbo, again, adopts a precarious tempo, which makes for a precipitous and convincing sense of threat, but slightly compromises clarity and variety of touch in the most knuckle-busting passages (of which Scarbo is of course full).

It is almost unprecedented to apply such high critical standards to a CD by a teenager, and it is hugely to Grosvenor’s credit that his performances merit them. To be having his CD compared to those of Pollini or Bavouzet tells us that a major new talent has arrived.