in: Reviews

November 6, 2013

Pianist Grosvenor Spotlights Unjust Neglect

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Benjamin Grosvenor (file photo)

Benjamin Grosvenor (file photo)

Last night the Celebrity Series brought the pianist Benjamin Grosvenor to Longy’s Pickman Hall for his Boston début in a program of quirky selections each full of contrast and character, and each played with charm and vigor.

Grosvenor is a 21-year-old Brit who has been garnering a lot of attention lately. Highlights of his career include playing Royal Albert Hall with the Royal Philharmonic in 2006, First Night of the Proms in 2011 with a return appearance in 2012, and several international concerts. Add in a Critic’s Choice award at the Classic Brits, two Gramophone Awards, and a Diapason d’Or, plus signing with Decca in 2011: Grosvenor already has a more established career than many performers twice his age. He is not, however, just another child prodigy; he plays with a sensitivity and maturity that belies his years and seems to have already negotiated that treacherous transition from child musician to adult performer with ease. From some interviews I’ve seen, he also seems like a genuinely grounded and nice person, so his musical success is all the sweeter for that.

Grosvenor walked on stage with an unprepossessing air. His general posture at the piano was upright yet relaxed, reminding me of photos showing Artur Rubinstein at the keyboard. I was struck by how the posture of his hands and fingers changed along with the mood of the music. The unaffected demeanor belied the finely-honed artistry and intensity of his playing. Throughout this concert, I was struck by Grosvenor’s delightfully varied weight and touch at the keyboard, bringing a wealth of colors and sounds to this recital. Each work revealed a beautiful interplay of voices and lines.

The program surveyed the 19th to mid-20th centuries, with rarities taking center stage while only a few familiar chestnuts got re-airing. Based on Grosvenor’s CDs, he would seem to be a champion of the oddities and the unjustly neglected corners of the repertoire—and, after this recital, I would add, with very good reason.

The opening Mendelssohn, Andante & Rondo capriccioso in E Major, Op. 14 (1830), set the stage: the tender and meditative first half metamorphosed into a sprightly, scampering, and playful second half in the minor key. The progression and modulation felt so organically right the change seemed inevitable. Schubert’s Impromptu in G-flat Major, Op. 90, no. 3, Andante (1827) began calmy, marking an immediate change from the end of the previous piece, before growing in intensity and rumbling tumult, in power and anguish, then relaxing into its conclusion. Schumann’s Humoreske, Op. 20 (1839) rounded out the first half of the program. This six-part work essays contrasts in emotional states, from the calm and sedate opening Einfach through a playful then starkly forceful mood which then turns to a weighty marcato with glimmers of the calm beginning. The permutations continue as the music becomes wistful and alluring then the declamatory, arresting pomp takes over; a powerful ritard gave the Adagio a tinge of melancholia, turning the last section (if not indeed the entire piece) into a love song of regret. This Humoreske plumbed darker, more serious depths than the title implies; I almost wonder if Schumann is not here surveying the older medical notion of the humors in his music? While the composition is not often heard in concert today, there is a lot of powerful music here and Grosvenor brought it to life. I was struck at one point to hear a touch that I can only describe as flautando, the fingers barely depressing the keys to elicit the lightest, almost insubstantial sound; I wonder how much more thrilling might it be to hear this on a pristine Bösendorfer?

,Grosvenor returned ollowing intermission with Frederic Mompou’s Paisajes. These three piano miniatures date from 1942, 1947, and 1960, respectively, and are abstract distillations of the Catalan composer’s native Spanish countryside: La fuente y la campana (“The Fountain and the Bell”), El lago (“The Lake”), and Carros de Calicia (“Carts of Galicia”). There is a hyaline clarity to Mompou’s depiction of water, which I found hauntingly evocative. Mid-way through El lago forceful clusters interrupt the surface calm, exposing the powerful undercurrents of lake and music. The third and later portrait proceeds a-pace like the titular carts, and the music maintained that sense of propulsion even as the texture became more dense. I heard intimations of Mussorgsky and of Scriabin here, as well as the more obvious debts to Debussy and de Falla. Next we heard Two Skazki, or Fairy Tales, by Nikolai Medtner: Op. 51, no. 3 in A Major and Op. 14, no. 2 in E Minor, “March of the Paladin.” Zoe Kemmerling’s program note describes the first of these as opening on a “carefree, whimsical melody, a ‘once upon a time’ equivalent.” I heard it as a domesticated little tune which then yields to an invigorating march that carried this musical narrative through. The second, which Kemmerling characterized as “a relentless, heavily contrapuntal piece with an exotic and vaguely sinister tread,” was an unfamiliar metamorphosis of a familiar-sounding theme. That alone might make an apt summary of Medtner’s approach to music, and since this composer is having his day, we might be hearing more of his unfamiliar familiarity.

Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales brought the recital back to more familiar territory. Grosvenor played with beauty, precision, and a strong and carefully modulated delicacy even in the forte passages, the music being playful yet bound to the strictures of the music. Despite the polished execution and insightful reading, this was my least favorite piece on the recital; this is a personal shortcoming and no comment on the pianist, but rather the unfortunate reflection of this critic’s preference for the composer’s orchestration of this music. The set program concluded with a thunderous bravura showpiece: Gounod/Liszt, Calse de l’opéra Faust, S. 407. Never once did Grosvenor lose the voices swirling around the ever-present melody, making of this a powerful, an awe-inspiring, performance.

The two encores were  Godowsky’s Tango, a contrapuntal arrangement for piano after Albeniz’s opus 165 no. 2, and Morton Gould’s Boogie Woogie Etude. The swirling music capped an exciting recital by an artist I look forward to hearing perform many more times.

Cashman Kerr Prince, trained in Classics and Comparative Literature, is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College.  He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra.

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