Benjamin Grosvenor

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).

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3 Responses to “Benjamin Grosvenor”

  1. crosseyedpianist Says:

    Morning, Gareth

    Interesting post – thank you. Benjamin Grosvenor is a pianist I have avoided after seeing him on Alan Yentob’s ‘Imagination’ prog some years ago, when he came across as a rather unlikeable child-Hobbit. I was struck by his immodesty when he said of (I think) a Chopin Etude, “Horowotz plays it like this” [demo on the piano] “but I prefer to play it like this” [another demo]. I remember thinking what a horrid little know-it -all he appeared, a child of 13 saying such things of a master like Horowitz…. Clearly, coming of age, in both a literal and metaphoric sense, has done him good, judging by your review of his Wigmore appearance. Ensemble playing is good for a young pianist, I think, as it teaches one modesty before others, and one is forced to consider the other players – there is no room for virtuoso histrionics.

    My fear about young stars like BG is that the great machine of media and international attention will push them in directions they may not wish to take and, under the pressure of the limelight, they burn out too early. In a way, this happened to Evgeny Kissin, who used to be everywhere, and now, as he nears 40, is very quiet indeed (and possibly very tired!). Great, young talents should be nurtured and brought on carefully – after all, it would be great to think that BG could still be playing, and playing superbly, in his 60s – like John Lill, one of my pianistic heroes from the 1980s, who is still going strong.

    By the way, Danny Barenboim once said that there is no such thing as a child prodigy – except in the eyes of the parents! Discuss.


  2. Gareth Says:

    With any pianist who exhibits such an unusual degree of talent at such an early age, it must be difficult to strike the right balance of nurture without either pushing them beyond what they are comfortable with or stifling them. I share your views on the odious hothousing of children, but on the whole I think he appears to have come through his childhood relatively unscathed. As for his arrogance at 13, I think we might forgive him that. I was something of an odious child myself around that age, as my diaries demonstrate (more anon…), and as far as is apparent he has shed that part of his character.

    I was particularly interested to see him playing with other musicians, for the reasons you mention, as all the performances I have heard of him so far have been solo (apart from bits of his Ravel concerto for BBCYMOTY, which I don’t think I saw at the time). They were an excellent group, lots of give and take between the performers and a sense of striving towards the same goal.

    One always remembers the prodigies who fell away – this seems especially to be the case with child film actors, but less so with musicians (perhaps because ‘naughty salt’ etc. are less prevalent in the world of classical music), though the likes of Terence Judd, whom I have mentioned before here, spring to mind. But it doesn’t automatically follow that someone who burns brightly as a child will burn out once they reach adulthood, and the omens for Grosvenor are good, I think. Let’s hope.

    As for Barenboim, I can’t really comment without knowing how he defines ‘prodigy’ – but surely it might be permitted to call e.g. Mozart and Mendelssohn by that name? though I dare say Leopold Mozart was the worst kind of pushy parent…

  3. George. Says:

    He is the best pianist I have ever heard. He is even better than my idol: Kissin. He is the perfect pianist. I just can´t beleive what I hear.

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