Young British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor has been much in the news lately: the recipient of two Gramophone Awards (Young Artist of the Year and Instrumental Award for his debut disc), and winner of the Critics’ Award at the 2012 Classic Brits. And he’s in great demand as a performer, if his diary is anything to go by. He wears titles like “prodigy” and “wunderkind” uncomfortably, displaying a self-deprecating modesty in interviews; indeed, despite his obvious talent from an early age, his piano teacher mother and his tutor at the Royal Academy of Music have allowed him to develop at his own pace, without thrusting him too soon into the limelight or the competition circuit. This bodes well for the future, as we watch this young artist mature.
The programme for his debut at Queen Elizabeth Hall focused on dance, from the stylised Allemandes and Sarabandes of the Baroque in Bach’s Partita no. 4 to stately Polonaises, folksy Mazurkas, sensuous waltzes, and finally an outrageous virtuosic showcase based on Johann Strauss’ On the Beautiful Blue Danube.
Bach’s Partitas for keyboard are amongst his most exceptional works, combining pleasure and study, their pedagogical purpose made clear in the title “Clavier-Übung” (literally “keyboard practice”), and they contain many tests in terms of rhythm, articulation, and voicing for the keyboard player.
Grosvenor’s Partita opened with a mannered, understated elegance, the passagework glittering with precision and control, but the individual “voices” and strands of melody were not always made explicit. In the faster movements, the dance elements were sometimes unclear, and the entire work seemed curiously introverted and lacking in wit. However, there were some moments of exquisite stillness, and in the second movement of the work, the Allemande, one had the sense of the music being created and embellished there and then.
In Chopin’s Polonaise in F sharp minor and his Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise brillante Grosvenor seemed more comfortable, relishing the grand sweep and romantic gestures of these works. The Polonaise opened with a menacing, martial tread before moving into a storm of double octaves contrasted with softer and more delicate textures. The virtuosity of this work was handled with ease and skill. The ravishing long-spun melody of Andante spianato had a singing sweetness, while the fiorituras and other decorative elements were light and feathery, lending a fantasy flavour to the work. The Polonaise brillante lived up to its name, performed with clarity and sparkle, with tasteful rubato and spare pedalling. But, like the Bach, it seemed overly serious, the humour and charm of the piece downplayed at the expense of virtuosity, and coupled with the feeling that Grosvenor was playing for himself alone. This sense was heightened by his modest, almost unmoving stage presence: at times, he seemed lost in a world of his own, barely aware of the audience.
The second half was more successful, a selection of Mazurkas by Scriabin and Granados’ sensuous Valses poéticos, played with a wistful tenderness and an introspection in keeping with Grosvenor’s on-stage personality. There were some lovely subtle shadings, great delicacy of touch, warmth and playfulness, particularly in the decorative elements of these pieces. Again, sensitive rubato and carefully nuanced pedalling prevented the music from slipping into the realms of false sentiment.
A distinctly tongue-in-cheek approach was required for the final work of the evening, Schulz-Evler’s Concert Arabesques on themes by Johann Strauss, “On the Beautiful Blue Danube”. Delivered without irony, it was reduced to a piece of showmanship, though admittedly delivered with great precision. But I craved more contrast, more drama, and, above all, a sense of humour.
The first encore was an atmospheric rendering of the Godowsky transcription of Albeniz’s sultry Tango, the second a brief shower of pianistic frills and furbelows, and, finally, a foot-tapping boogie-woogie, which was met with a standing ovation.