Pianist Benjamin Grosvenor, the now-famous former child prodigy, has made three visits to the Boston area in the past two years—on the Celebrity Series at Longy in November 2013, where I first heard him, at the Gardner Museum this past winter, and at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival on Saturday night. I was initially very curious about him, despite my general distrust of prodigies. And, he was so very highly touted, “the greatest British pianist of his generation, etc.” proclaimed his PR. At age 11, he won the Keyboard Final of the 2004 BBC Young Musician Competition and had the good fortune to play with important orchestras before he was 20. In 2011, he became the youngest British musician ever to sign to Decca Classics and the youngest British pianist to sign to the label in almost 60 years. A YouTube documentary about him at a young age [here] was rather palatable. He seems to be sensible, smart, and grounded. He has received Gramophone’s Young Artist of the Year and a slew of other honors. In interviews he seems to be thoughtful; in recital, eager to get out on stage and play. Rockport’s audience certainly responded rapturously to him.
Grosvenor performs the music of Ravel, Mendelssohn, and Liszt, frequently; he did so again Friday night. He also has been a champion of neglected corners and hidden gems of the piano literature such as Mendelssohn’s Six Preludes and Fugues, Op. 35, which opened his program. Shortly before its composition (talk about amazing child prodigies!) between 1832 and 1837, the 20-year-old Mendelssohn led the 1829 performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion at a Good Friday service in Berlin— its first performance in almost a century. Mendelssohn originally conceived of the Preludes and Fugues for Piano as Etudes and Fugues, but unquestionably under the influence of J. S. Bach, whose two books of Preludes and Fugues were published in 1722 and 1742, he composed new introductions to his existing fugues. The pieces were organized in a pattern of alternating major and minor keys, with three of the Preludes and Fugues in sharp keys, three in flat keys. Grosvenor performed the dramatic E minor (with its invocation from the Chorale “A Mighty Fortress” (Ein feste Burg) and F minor (Nos. 1 and 5) with the requisite virtuosity and a lovely tone. It was a curious opening, but those virtuosic preludes reminded this listener of Mendelssohn’s lovely Songs without Words. Though unable to see the pianist’s hands from my seat, i was compensated by a sublime view of a gorgeous sunset in all shades of yellow and deep blues over the water.
Bach’s magisterial Chaconne from his D Minor Partita for Solo Violin, BWV 1004 has famously been transcribed for piano by Brahms (Etude No. 5 for left-hand alone), while Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann wrote piano accompaniments. In a letter to Clara Schumann, Brahms wrote about the Chaconne: “On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.” The most famous, or notorious of the arrangements is that by Ferruccio Busoni (1897) whose transcription served as his own virtuosic vehicle—this is not a transcription for purists. As someone who has played a reasonably decent version for harp, I should perhaps be less alarmed by Busoni’s transformations. Many virtuoso/daredevil pianists seem to find it irresistible and audiences are always left thunderstruck by its wildly imaginative forays, which preserve Bach daredevil flights. Grosvenor equaled the demands with power, dynamic variety, and great control.
Clearly Grosvenor likes audiences. He is living out the dream he’s had for half of his short life. No sooner had he left the stage from performing the Chaconne, than he returned a moment later to play another hybrid of the Baroque and Romantic, Cesar Franck’s Prelude, Chorale and Fugue (1884), which pianist Steven Hough (whom Grosvenor admires greatly) described as “the most deeply felt and serious piece for the instrument to come out of France in the 19th century.” He delineated every line of the imposing structure.
Tombeau de Couperin by Ravel (1914-17) is another one of those pieces so loved that it exists for an array of instrumental ensembles, including for full orchestra, like so many Ravel piano works that ended up as orchestral showcases. In 1919 Ravel orchestrated four of the movements (Prelude, Forlane, Minuet, Ragaudon). Even before the outbreak of the first World War, Ravel was planning to write a “French suite” for piano, using 18th-century models. In the event it was not until 1917 that he was able to complete it, and by then it had taken on the form not just of an homage to his musical predecessors but also of a tribute to friends and colleagues who had died in service during the war. The piano version, in six movements, received its first performance in 1919 by Marguerite Long. Begun as nod to the golden era of French music, Couperin and the 18th century in general, it ended up a tribute to the dead of the Great War. Ravel designed his own title page for the score, which featured a draped funerary urn. The Toccata is included among the piano roll recordings which Ravel made in 1922, and the Minuet was one of his favorites. At his death, a copy was found opened on his piano. Grosvenor clearly loves Ravel, and it came through in his performance of this poignant although often lively suite, full of verve. Ravel remarked, “In their eternal silence the dead are sad enough.” It’s hard to hear the bare-bones piano version of Tombeau once one has the orchestral (or even the woodwind quintet) version in one’s ears, yet Grosvenor impressed with Ravelian elegance, precision, and clarity.
Can any pianist resist Liszt? I think few. Grosvenor concluded with the composer’s Venezia e Napoli (1840 – 1859). Liszt based the three sections upon Italian tunes and melodies by the composers Giovanni Battista Peruchini, Gioacchino Rossini, and Teodoro Cottrau. The pianist met the Lisztian technical demands in spades, and the audience jumped up, as they do regularly at summer concerts. Our 23-year-old pianist happily obliged with a jazzed up Percy Grainger arrangement of the Gershwin song, “Embraceable You.” He worked hard enough to deserve to play anything he pleased. This was one tough program, and he handled it with maturity and aplomb.