“If I had the option of touring with my own piano, I would be reluctant to do it. There is something quite exciting about sitting down on a stage each time and having something new, exploring exactly what it does and what it doesn’t do... Pianos are so different from one another, they are like human beings, and that’s one fascinating aspect of what I do.”

Talking to me about the pro and cons of Steinway versus Bechstein (spoiler alert: they are all great for different reasons) is British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor. He won the keyboard final of the BBC Young Musician competition at age 11, was invited to perform at the First Night of the BBC Proms at 19 and has captured the attention of audiences across the world ever since, collecting an impressive list of collaborations and accolades along the way.

Benjamin Grosvenor © Patrick Allen | Operaomnia.co.uk
Benjamin Grosvenor
© Patrick Allen | Operaomnia.co.uk

Grosvenor, today a busy touring soloist, has never restricted himself to only one brand of instruments. All major makes are doing interesting things with their pianos, he tells me, and variety is exciting. Although he knows what are his preferences, he likes to be open to new discoveries.

“I play what I am given and in most circumstances that’s absolutely fine,” he says. “I know what kind of touch I favour but I don’t normally request it. You do develop relationships with certain piano tuners; for example, Peter Salisbury, who tunes the pianos at the Southbank Centre and also provided the instruments for my last few recordings, is a magician. He is incredible and it’s a real honour to work with someone like that. There are also people in France with whom I have a similar relationship and who I admire hugely. Being a piano technician is very difficult and requires the same kind of obsession that we have as pianists about our craft, and that’s something I really value.”

Many of the great composers were known for being particular about their instruments, so it's interesting to think that many pieces that today are widely performed on a modern piano were actually written for a different instrument.

“You have to accept that, in effect, you are making a transcription,” says Grosvenor. “When I play, I want to embrace truly everything that a piano can do. For example, if you play Bach, you should use the pedal, but sparingly, because there are a lot of varieties of contrappuntos and the pedal blurs things – but there’s also much potential for the pedal to add colour to your performance. I don’t like to restrict myself, but one has to be mindful that one's playing a piece of music written for harpsichord. And there’s a lot to learn from listening to people who specialise in historical performance practice. Harpsichord players do such interesting things with temporal displacement, because without a range of dynamics at their disposal it becomes a much more important mean of expression.”

But Grosvenor is not attracted to the idea of playing different keyboard instruments himself. “Professionally I wouldn’t have any interest in it, but it's often eye opening. One of my most memorable experiences from my teenage years was playing on some of the pianos from Chopin’s era, which had such a haunting tone... ” he recalls. “There was a beauty to it which had a quality on its own. The touch on these instruments is also so much lighter than what we are used to on a modern piano, and that’s interesting.”

And Grosvenor's relationship with Chopin is special, as Chopin was one of the first composers that really spoke to him. “The first real pieces of music I played beyond tutor books were Chopin’s waltzes,” he recalls. “I was about eight and his emotional world and amazing melodic gift immediately appealed to me. It was sort-of love at first sight and Chopin has been central to my repertoire ever since.”

Benjamin Grosvenor and Elim Chan record the Chopin concertos with the RSNO © Decca Classics | Sandy Butler
Benjamin Grosvenor and Elim Chan record the Chopin concertos with the RSNO
© Decca Classics | Sandy Butler

This month Grosvenor is releasing a new recording with Decca Classics: Chopin’s Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 with Elim Chan and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. It had been a while since Grosvenor had recorded an orchestral album, but the chemistry on the live stage while playing with the RSNO and Chan was so great that entering a studio together seemed to be a natural progression.

“Elim is such a natural musician and wonderful partner in these concerti, for the sensitivity she has,” explains Grosvenor. “The Chopin concerti are often considered to be difficult for conductors because you have to catch every impulse that the soloist has... the music itself, to breathe, has to be played with a certain amount of freedom and that can be challenging. Chan is incredibly gifted at that. I just had a great time the whole week that I had with her and the RSNO, so it seemed natural to revisit that partnership for a recording.”

But for a soloist, playing with an orchestra comes with its own set of challenges and rewards. “As a pianist in a concerto format, I don’t think one can have one’s head down and just expect the conductor to do everything… you have to accept that it’s a collaborative music-making, and that can be wonderful. A lot of discussion went into making sure that we had a united vision as to what we wanted to get from the pieces.”

“Recording a solo album is a strange experience, because you are literally playing in a room to seemingly no one. It can be difficult to capture the electricity of a live performance. With an orchestra it’s much easier to become lost in the feeling of making music with other musicians and to rid yourself of the self-consciousness that you might find in a studio setting.”

Most people hate hearing their recorded voice, so one could wonder if a pianist also dislikes to hear their own playing. For Grosvenor, however, listening to his performances is a necessary step, as he can learn a lot. “If given the choice I’d rather not, put it that way,” he laughs, “but listening back to yourself playing is a hugely important thing to do, and I tend to do that quite a lot, especially for recitals, because you are not experiencing it with another musician so there’s not necessarily someone else with whom you can talk about it.”

“I am very grateful to be doing this now, as opposed to, say, the 1970s,” he tells me. “For people like Martha Argerich, starting off their careers, it was much more of an isolated life on a recital tour. I am pleased that I live in this time when talking to anyone is just a press of a button away. But I would not want to play only piano recitals, for sure,” he adds. “I love everything I do, but the thing that brings me most joy is playing chamber music, because of the social element of it and the fact that you get to interact so closely with other musicians and discuss music in a much more intense way than in other circumstances.”

Grosvenor's passionate yet serious attitude seems to be reflected also in the way in which he plans his recitals' programme. “There’s often one piece that I am keen on playing and that starts off my idea for the programme,” he tells me. “I like variety and the interesting ways one can combine a wide range of music. To describe my last programme, for example, one of the main elements was Schumann's Kreisleriana, a piece that I have loved for a long time and I really wanted to learn. So what would it be good to go before it? Arabesque and Blumenstück are contemporary to it. I chose Blumenstück as to me it seemed just as beautiful a piece as the Arabesque and it’s not often played. In Kreisleriana you have music which is emotively quicksilver, sometimes outwards sometimes inwards, so after that you need something emotionally censored. A piece I have been dying to play was the Janáček Sonata, which is inspired by tragic events and is a dark and emotionally terse work, so I thought it would be ideal for the beginning of the second half. I also wanted to play the Liszt Norma paraphrase, which is obviously the end of the recital. It seemed a good fit for Prokofiev's Vision Fugitives, which are these intimate little miniatures where every piece is its own unique ornament or curious object, to inhabit this colourful but transparent world between the Janáček and Norma. I have been rambling,” he laughs, “but that sort-of explains what goes into my mind when I put a programme together.”

Benjamin Grosvenor © Patrick Allen | Operaomnia.co.uk
Benjamin Grosvenor
© Patrick Allen | Operaomnia.co.uk

Contemporary music is also something that Grosvenor finds very interesting and in 2014 Judith Weir wrote Day Break Shadows Flee for him. “It was my first time working directly with a composer, having the opportunity to discuss the piece... ” he recalls. “One wonders how it would be to talk to all those composers of the past about their music so it’s a privilege to be able to do so with living composers. In my penultimate recital programme I had some pieces by Brett Dean, who I have grown to know and admire a lot, interspersed between works by Brahms. To live with a contemporary piece for a whole season is a very interesting experience.”

“Also what is fascinating,” he continues, “is picking up a piece that nobody has played before, and truly learn it from the score. Everything starts from the score, but inevitably you have heard it before and there’s all these things that you are influenced by. The experience of playing a contemporary piece that is being premiered is something unique. More contemporary music in the future is something that I would be interested in and there are few possibilities that I am exploring.”

As someone who started playing at age six, music education is a cause that is close to Grosvenor's heart. “Very often when I am performing somewhere I am asked to take part in an outreach programme, or to go into schools to play or talk to students, and that’s something that’s very important. For the students, for the exposure to music, and also for the promoters, for developing a public for the future.”

Since 2013 he is an Ambassador for the London Music Masters, a musical charity that enables children to learn an instrument in school and supports them if they want to continue on a professional path. “It’s an incredible programme” he tells me. “One thing that I have done with them and with Hyeyoon Park, who was one of their award holders, was a recording of pieces written by contemporary composers for up to grade six violin. It gives the students new music to play and exposes them to the voices of some living composers.”

“It is a good thing for the development of young human beings to be exposed to music. So much has been talked about the benefit that music can have on other aspect of education, but it’s also a very rewarding social and communal experience.”

Click here to see all of Benjamin Grosvenor's upcoming performances.