in: Reviews

March 3, 2015

Old-School Pianism From Young Exponent

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Benjamin Grosvenor (file photo)

Benjamin Grosvenor (file photo)

Benjamin Grosvenor has been in the international spotlight for half his short life, having won the Keyboard Final of the 2004 BBC Young Musician Competition at the age of 11. Now, at the ripe old age of 22, he gave a recital on Sunday afternoon in Calderwood Hall at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. HIs ambitious program confirmed his credentials as a mature artist, and provided a compelling new take on an old-school-style of pianism.

In the Intelligencer’s interview with Grosvenor [here], he discussed being inspired by a past generation of pianists, such as Alfred Cortot, Moriz Rosenthal, and Shura Cherkassky, who each had his own unique piano sound, and played with free rubato, stretching and slowing tempos to create distinctive emotional expressiveness. He also described the inspiration behind his program. The first half was a sort of neo-Romantic take on Baroque keyboard music, while the second half turned to two Romantic masters who incorporated tunes and dance rhythms of their native countries into their compositions.

The Baroque-inspired half began with Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Gavotte with Variations, the seventh and final movement of Rameau’s Keyboard Suite in A Minor. This work, adapted from harpsichord to modern piano, was a favorite of that past generation of pianists; Otto Klemperer even orchestrated and conducted it. Grosvenor approached the theme with a moderate tempo, placing his trills with care and precision. He delivered the six variations with exacting contrapuntal clarity, negotiating feathery-light fusillades of embellishments in one hand, both hands, and crossed hands, through a range of registers and dynamics without losing sight of the Gavotte theme. If there was any problem with this set, it was that the bass register variations didn’t speak clearly. Later in the recital, other similarly written segments sounded more clearly, suggesting that Grosvenor was adapting on the fly to this unorthodox concert hall at challengingly hushed dynamics.

The second work was Ferruccio Busoni’s arrangement of J. S. Bach’s Chaconne, the masterly fifth and final movement of the Partita No. 2 in D Minor for solo violin. Busoni’s arrangement fleshes out implied harmonies, echoes figurations that Bach uses once or twice, switches parts between registers in the piano, uses dynamic markings which wouldn’t work on a violin, and tests the pianist’s skill with a kaleidoscopic range of playing techniques. Grosvenor approached this variation-form work with flexible tempos, deftly articulated fingerwork, and a judiciously controlled range of dynamics. The modernist element came from a skillful bringing out of dissonant suspensions that might have been downplayed by the older masters. And the voicing of the chords in the major-key segment was something special, beautifully balanced and ringing with overtones. He also carefully sculpted each of the short variations, using modest inflections of speed and dynamics to render lucid musical architecture, an impressive feat considering all the details going on within that architecture. It made for a lush, luxuriant sound, with equal measures of old school and new school influences.

These two finales would be quite enough for a half, but Grosvenor added a third piece. In his Prelude, Chorale, and Fugue, César Franck’s found a 19th -century take on a common Bach keyboard composition style, using an elaborated chorale to link the prelude to the fugue. Grosvenor again began the work in a restrained, stately fashion, and slowly gathered momentum, with chorale and fugue demonstrating again his prodigious ability to decorate around a slowly moving tune without losing shape and direction.

The second half began with four favorite works of Frédéric Chopin. The Barcarolle in F-sharp Major, Op. 60 draws inspiration from the songs of Venetian gondoliers. Grosvenor’s performance swung with danceable rhythmic flexibility, and had levels of shaping and direction that defy many other pianists. Each section of the Barcarolle had striking changes of pianistic color, with a blurred left hand suggesting undulating waves in the middle section, and repeated material articulated differently with each repeat. For Two Mazurkas, in f minor, Op. 63, No.2, and in c-sharp minor, Op. 30, No. 4, Grosvenor deployed more subtle but distinctive rubato, bringing out the unorthodox rhythm of this Polish dance form and making both works feel like they were improvised on the spot in all their harmonic and tuneful weirdness. And the Ballade No. 3 in A-flat Major showed further mastery and control. No two repeated phrases sounded the same; sometimes, a different voice was brought out of the texture, sometimes the pace was stretched out differently, and sometimes the articulation and dynamics gave voice to an extraordinary poetic imagination.

The recital finished with three pieces from Goyescas. The masterwork of Spaniard Enrique Granados, which draws inspiration from the paintings of Francisco Goya, has figured frequently in Grosvenor’s recitals and recordings. In Quejas, ó la maja y el ruiseñor (Complaint, or the Girl and the Nightingale), Grosvenor tossed off Granados’s fiendishly difficult, increasingly elaborate piano writing with effortless ease. The nightingale’s reply to the girl’s complaints is daringly soft, fast, and high in the piano register; to my ears, this was one of the few false steps, a little heavy handed and rhythmically clunky. El amor y la muerte (Ballad of Love and Death) offered alternation between a high-range section phrased with nobility and pathos and a bass register segment played with menace and foreboding, and finished with gorgeously voiced, hushed, cleanly articulated playing. The recital closed with El pelele (The Puppet), a raucous addendum to Goyescas filled with insane flourishes, parallel octaves, and crossed-hand insanity. Grosvenor wrapped the recital with dash and élan, bringing the audience to its feet. He returned for one encore, Federico Mompou’s La fuente y la campana (The Fountain and the Bell) from his piano suite Paisajes. This provided a lovely contrast to El pelele, with more hushed, judiciously voiced piano playing.

Grosvenor deploys his remarkable technical skill, keen structural intellect, and far-ranging musical imagination with a surprisingly self-effacing mien. You can see an example of this here in a video of Granados’s Quejas, ó la maja y el ruiseñor. He plays slightly hunched over the keyboard, fiercely concentrated on the keys, his arms and hands moving swiftly but with remarkable economy and lack of drama. His physicality doesn’t have the self-aggrandizing flash and razzle-dazzle that wins rock star audiences, but I do hope his old school musicianship gets him noticed beyond the cognoscenti. I’m convinced he’s the real deal, and I look forward to hearing how he deepens and matures.

The pianist has been touring with this recital which he will repeat in Quebec City, Vancouver, and central Europe. Calderwood Hall will host A Far Cry on Thursday, March 5th and violinist Yoojin Jang with pianist Renana Gutman next Sunday.

James C.S. Liu is a physician by day and a baritone and music enthusiast by night. He lives with his wife and daughters in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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