BENJAMIN GROSVENOR Chopin, Liszt, Ravel
Nocturnes – in F-sharp, Op. 15 No. 2; in E minor, Op. posth. 72 No. 1; in C-sharp minor
Six Polish Songs, S 480 – Moja pieszczotka; Życzenie (arr. Liszt)
LISZT En rêve Nocturne, S 207
RAVEL Gaspard de la nuit
Benjamin Grosvenor (piano).
When Benjamin Grosvenor won the keyboard award at the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition in 2004, the British pianist was all of 11 years old. His performance was so striking, so composed for someone so young, that it added force to gripes about the overall award going to violinist Nicola Benedetti.
Since then, Grosvenor has been the darling of the British press, and his story certainly has appeal: the son of a piano teacher mother, he started piano only when he was six and is now completing studies at the Royal Academy of Music. He also gives recitals and concerto appearances all over the world, including opening the BBC Proms last year, quite an honor for someone his age.
Grosvenor signed a recording deal with Decca last year, making him the first British pianist to be signed to the label in more than six decades. His first disc for the label, a recital of Chopin, Liszt, and Ravel, reveals a clever bit of programming, alternating all four of Chopin’s Scherzos, to show off his technical prowess, with three of the Nocturnes, for finesse.
The Scherzos are certainly fast, with the outer sections of No. 1, placed first, sounding like a player piano with the tempo juiced to the max. There is at times almost not enough time for the ear to register anything, the notes go by so fast, and the somewhat manic attention to clipped endings and maximum dynamic contrasts – this goes for the impetuous Fourth Scherzo, too – is exciting but can wear on the listener. The slow section of that Scherzo is milked for maximum contrast, but at times it is almost too soft and slow.
The Second Scherzo is more genial in spirit, with some will-o’-the-wisp flightiness, while the third has an impish sense of fiery unpredictability, with an over-the-top, somewhat sugary theatricality applied to the cascading water-drop notes decorating the melody of the slow section. Many of the fast passages are dazzling, albeit with a sense of some approximations being allowed to keep the pace.
Offering contrast to these nervous Scherzos, the Nocturnes placed between are almost soporific, with a wilting softness that can become affected, wallowing a bit too much in the tubercular stereotype of Chopin. These are followed by two Liszt arrangements of Chopin’s songs and a Liszt nocturne, all with the substance, or lack thereof, to serve beautifully as pleasing encores, flashy and trashy in the way
Liszt can be.
Ravel’s notoriously difficult Gaspard de la nuit crowns the achievement of this debut disc, the sort of piece so many young
pianists use to show off their technical bona fides. Grosvenor has the technique to pull off the piece, although perhaps not yet the sense to know how far is too far to push the effect of finger-smashing speed. More impressively, he has the interpretative depth to play it with panache and coloristic subtlety: the exquisitely transparent right-hand figuration of ‘Ondine,’ the craftsmanship of sound around the clanging bell note of ‘Le Gibet,’ the devilish intensity and volcanic shifts of loud and soft in ‘Scarbo.’
All that remains to be seen – and heard – is where Grosvenor goes from here as he moves into the adult phase of his career.