Benjamin Grosvenor is the next big thing. That’s what people are saying, anyway. Mainly people interested in pianos. If his name is familiar, that may be because he was the piano finalist in BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2004, the year Nicola Benedetti took the honours playing Szymanowski. Following a few years spent more or less away from the glare of the rabidly piano-hungry international media, Grosvenor, now 18, is out, as Mrs Bennet might have said. He’s even a BBC New Generation Artist. He loves Middlemarch. All this you can discover online.
His debut album, This & That, released by Galton Concert Productions in 2009 (and available for purchase either from them via Amazon Marketplace or direct from Grosvenor’s website), has been lauded to the skies in the music press. That his name is barely visible on the cover, printed inconspicuously in a dim and tiny font in its top left-hand corner, may attest to his modesty. The diffidence he exhibits in his recent interview with Jessica Duchen in the Independent is most endearing. This, it appears, is a man with his head screwed on, and that may be important if people keep writing that he’s e.g. ‘the most important British pianist to emerge in decades’. With praise comes pressure.
What of the debut recording, then, made when Grosvenor was 16? It’s an enticing and varied programme, beginning with three of Nikolai Kapustin’s op. 40 etudes, moving on to a selection of Spanish and Spanish-influenced pieces including a couple of Scarlatti sonatas, then two of Chopin’s most beautiful nocturnes, and finally three transcriptions, two by Cziffra and last of all the Gershwin-Grainger ‘Love Walked In’, recorded a year or two earlier than the other tracks. Does it live up to expectations?
I think it possibly even exceeds them. Compare his performance of Kapustin’s ‘Pastoral’ with that of Marc-André Hamelin on Hyperion. He may not yet possess the almost robotic equality of articulation Hamelin is capable of exhibiting (and I mean robotic as a compliment in this instance), but he brings out details in the inner voices which Hamelin neglects, making his performance no less rewarding than the master’s. His virtuosity in the Cziffra pieces is breathtaking. Perhaps most telling is that I have never once felt moved to question the validity of his interpretations. Everything seems natural and intuitive, particularly the Chopin nocturnes (op. 27 no. 2 and op. 55 no. 2) which sing as few performances do. The Grainger-Gershwin, which one can listen to along with a number of live recordings here, is sublime.
I’ve jumped on the bandwagon just too late to catch Grosvenor’s most recent London recital, but last night went to see him in concert at the Wigmore Hall playing Schubert’s B-flat piano trio, D898, and Brahms’ third piano quartet, op. 60, with members of the English Chamber Orchestra Ensemble. It was a delight to see him in performance, looking, with his shirt, waistcoat and hair ‘styled by wind and gravity’, not entirely unlike Kaspar Hauser, and I came away thinking that in some respects Grosvenor’s youth is a millstone. It’s hard not to write about him without referring to it, simply because to find such maturity in a musician of his age is so unusual, but it shouldn’t be relevant. He is just a superb musician, irrespective of any other factor.
The Schubert was full of youthful freshness and joy, but I felt the Brahms was revelatory. One is accustomed to thinking of Brahms as the embodiment of Teutonic rigidity (though there are of course countless works one could cite to contradict this), but the first piano entry of the E-flat major theme in the first movement was played almost impressionistically, as one might play Rachmaninov. The greatest musicians share the gift of being able to make one hear music as if through different ears, and this was a fascinating and at times profoundly affecting interpretation. My hat is off to Grosvenor, and to his colleagues Stephanie Gonley (violin), Jonathan Barritt (viola) and Caroline Dale (cello).
Image from BenjaminGrosvenor.co.uk.