The young pianist Benjamin Grosvenor—so young, that he is in fact, the youngest British musician ever to sign a contract with the record label Decca (who released his latest album, Dances, last summer)—is no stranger to Boston. His appearance on the Celebrity Series in November 2013 was reviewed here. On Sunday, he returns with Rameau, Bach-Busoni, Franck, Chopin, and Granados at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
THG: Tell us about the thread that binds your Boston program.
BG: It started out because I really wanted to play the Franck Prélude, Chorale, and Fugue ever since I heard the Cortot recording in my teens, and that led me to conceive a Baroque-inspired first half. So you have Rameau, the Gavotte and Variations, and then the Bach-Busoni Chaconne, sort of going from the Baroque to a Romantic re-envisaging of a Baroque piece, and then the Franck, which is a sort of Romantic neo-Baroque. And then in the second half, it’s a different world. Two very nationalistic composers—Romantic era, Romantic styles—Chopin is Polish and Granados Spanish—two composers with great melodic gifts. I suppose you could say Granados is very indebted to Chopin in the kind of piano writing that he produced. And Goyescas is his most complex and his greatest work, and one of the crowning edifices of Spanish piano music.
You mentioned Cortot, Tell us about musicians who influenced you, past, present. Would you put Cortot high on the list?
Yes, I like his playing a great deal, and other people of his generation. Earlier pianists, like Moriz Rosenthal, one of the earliest pianists to record, is someone with connections that go back into the 19th century, so it’s fascinating, really, to hear some of the things that he produced. People like Vladimir de Pachmann, and Friedman, Cortot, and Moiseyevich, and then later Horowitz and Cherkassky, Rubinstein are all so distinctly individual, such very different approaches to the piano. They all seem to have their own kind of sound at the instrument. So I really like hearing those old recordings of the piano repertoire.
Do you prefer the earlier performers?
Well, there are a lot of pianists I like today as well, of course; I just think there was more freedom in the playing of the earlier group. They were less limited, maybe they emphasized being recreator of works, and, maybe they took greater liberties.
And have you tried early keyboard instruments much?
Yes, I have, although I don’t know if I’ve tried particularly fine specimens. At the Academy there are a lot of Baroque instruments that I’ve run my fingers over a couple of times. I’ve tried them and tried to get to know them a bit. I had a clavichord in my house for a little while, but again, not a very fine instrument. But I have experimented with them, it’s fascinating. But it’s also fascinating to translate something—maybe the Rameau in particular—to modern piano. Of course on the modern piano you have a wider range of color and you find in giving a performance of a work which would have been played on the harpsichord, you can sort of imitate more than just that, in terms of baroque instruments. The piece grows as the variations proceed—basically there’s sort of a crescendo before the texture thickens towards the end. As you start off, using the una corda you can imitate the intimate world of the clavichord, and as the semiquavers of the next variations appear, the textures are more harpsichord-like and there some things you can do, some might say liberties, with doubling the theme, with which you can imitate harpsichord stops. And then, you know that at the end you can create sounds with pedal effects which are more like the organ. Evoking that kind of sound world then passes on well to the Bach-Busoni, where with the sonorities that he evokes, it is almost as though he transcribed the piece first for organ before transcribing it for piano. Only on a few occasions does it seem that he’s being true to the essence of the violin; there’s as much Busoni in the work as Bach, you could say, but the sonorities that he’s creating are very much organ-like rather than like the violin.
Could you say more about your approach to playing pieces on a modern piano which were written for instruments as different as harpsichord or an early 19th -century piano?
I think of it as being a transcription and I use the full range of the instrument at hand. Of course I bear in mind performance practice in terms of ornamentation and sonorities. When I play Bach as well I try to get all the color from the piano. At the same time, it’s fascinating having the sound of the harpsichord in your head, and there are times when you think that the color you might like is trying to imitate a harpsichord. I use the full potential of the instrument I’m playing while keeping in mind these earlier sounds.
And do you have a similar approach with, say, Chopin?
I haven’t had so much experience playing those instruments. I did do a documentary once at Hatchland’s in Surrey, a country house/ museum with lots of old instrument. Some of the ones I enjoyed most were the Pleyel pianos, which have this wonderful haunting tone. But I hardly got any time on them before they dragged me away and made me go somewhere else! So I haven’t played them very much, but that left quite an impression! I don’t think I find myself so mindful of that when I play Romantic music. I suppose because it’s a little more similar to a modern Steinway, so I don’t find myself thinking so much about what the original piano would have sounded like. But maybe there’ll be some specific pieces in the future—Schumann and things—when I might want to try on the original instrument.
Can you tell us of a particularly memorable instrument that you’ve played?
I’m thinking of a couple of very good Steinway D’s which of course is the beast that one normally encounters. There’s a very fine piano technician at the Southbank Centre in London, he’s probably one of the best around today. I often find the pianos under his care really quite special. He’s a marvelous voicer and he really looks after instruments in such a way that they have this huge range of color. The one that I did my most recent recording on is from the Southbank Centre, and it is a piano that has a huge range of sound. Sometimes what one finds is that pianos that have a big sound these days tend to be brightly voiced. The big sound is in order for them project in a big hall, and they make them very bright, very brilliant. But they don’t have the resonance in the bass that one needs to give a broad spectrum of tone.
Why the piano? Do you remember why you chose it?
My mother’s a piano teacher who started my four older brothers and me all on various instruments around the age of six. But they picked other things —trumpet, a clarinet, guitar, and violin. There was always a piano in the house though, and I heard it very often, but I played the cello for a short while. I completely fell in love at maybe the age of seven with the Jacqueline du Pré’s recording of the Elgar concerto, or with the Elgar concerto anyway as a piece, and I decided I really wanted to play it. So I picked up the cello when I was eight and played it for three years. But when I was eleven, and in the BBC Young Musician Competition, I was already doing a lot with the piano, and the piano was clearly the instrument that I enjoyed playing more, so I gave up the cello, though I wish I could go back and keep going, because it would be so nice now to be able to play string quartets.
So what is next? Is there a specific repertoire that you’re looking to explore more? I noticed, for example, from your discography that you haven’t recorded much from the Classical period.
There’s no particular reason for that…I suppose you could say that during my teenage years, the focus was on music from the Romantic era. Not that I neglected music of the classical era. I played numerous Beethoven sonatas and Mozart sonatas, and some Beethoven and Mozart concerti, a bit of Haydn… and so I’ve had a fairly mixed diet. When it came to recording my first CD, I recorded the program I happened to be playing around that time. So maybe on a future disk I’ll do some music of the Classical era. But as you can probably see from this program, I play varied repertoire and my recital programs often reflect that. As for what’s coming up, I’m doing Beethoven’s 1st concert for the first time. (I did Beethoven’s 3rd concerto before). I’ve got two Shostakovich concerti that I’m doing in May in England, which are both new to me. But my next recital program is some Mendelssohn Preludes and Fugues which are not very often played, (I have a Rudolf Serkin recording of the e minor which is very fine), Chopin’s Sonata No. 2, Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin, and Liszt’s Venezia e Napoli from Années de pelerinage, another piece that’s not so often played. The Tarantella, the last piece of the set, is played an awful lot, but the first few pieces, as well as the complete set rarer in performance. I try when I can to find music that is less familiar and combine it with that which is more generally played. The piano repertoire is so huge and there are so many gems that are not often touched. Things like Mompou and Medtner and other such haven’t been explored recently.
Do you have plans for Medtner and Mompou?
Yes! I was only playing some of Medtner’s Fairy Tales, but I’d like to play some of the piano sonatas soon. Mompou is a composer whose music I really love. Quite special, very intimate; he had his own sort of language. I enjoy Spanish music very much, that’s how I sort of discovered Mompou,), but his is a sort of very distilled vision of Spain. It’s not quite the same kind of world as Albeniz and Granados, it’s more intimate and personal.
You played in Boston two years ago in Pickman Hall in the Longy School for the Boston Celebrity Series. Now you’re coming back to play at the Gardner museum. Tell us of your impressions of Boston, please!
I’m looking forward to it very much! It’s quite a long tour that I’m on in America. It’ll be very nice to come to Boston’s very strong music scene. Last time I was on the Harvard campus, and I had a wonderfully in-depth interview at the radio station, WHRB. Seth Herbst was a such a keen piano buff, it was a pleasure to be interviewed by him.
What does music do for you?
You share the innermost emotions that come from yourself and the composers with audiences, and hopefully you give them pleasure, or touch them. It’s been my wish from a very young age to go on stage and deliver.