Benjamin Grosvenor presented a clearly well-thought-out programme of contrasting halves. His considerable prodigious talent and skills are no longer news to British audiences but tonight's performance showed evidence of a deep musical intellect and character. The programme began with pure Baroque and travelled via Baroque-inspired music with glimpses into a new Romantic world before arriving at Romantic music proper in the second half.

Benjamin Grosvenor © operaomnia.co.uk
Benjamin Grosvenor
© operaomnia.co.uk

It's something of a rarity to hear Rameau's keyboard music played on a modern piano these days. In fact, it's unusual to hear Rameau at all in British concert halls and so I was delighted that Grosvenor opened his concert with the Gavotte and Variations from the French composer's Nouvelle Suite de Pièces de Clavecin. Grosvenor demonstrated great delicacy in his handling of Rameau’s intricate ornamentation.

Grosvenor has expressed a preference for Steinway instruments and he certainly coaxed a huge variety of colours from the instrument on stage at Birmingham Town Hall over the course of the evening. The quite gorgeous, creamy tone that he found for the Rameau and the substantial use of the sustaining pedal, however, did nothing to convince me that this music is suited to performance on a modern piano.

Busoni’s transcription of Bach’s Chaconne in D minor for violin, on the other hand, was most definitely composed with the pianoforte in mind. The piece emerged here with greater clarity than the Rameau. Grosvenor’s characterisation of the music was nobly sombre. There were no hard edges to his playing and yet he summoned great power at times, displaying considerable virtuosity when the music required it. He used a vast palette of colours to accentuate the contrasts between the variations. The transition to the major key set of variations was cathartic after the storm of minor key episodes.

It felt like Grosvenor had mastered this piano completely and his sound easily reached all corners of the hall. He was particularly commanding in the lower register of the instrument and this performance suggested that he has an affinity for music with darker undertones, injecting it with a certain youthful impetuosity rather than tragic acceptance. This was evident in the brooding Prelude, Choral and Fugue by César Franck. The three movements are not formally constructed in the manner of Baroque compositions of the same name but it is clear that the French composer was inspired by such forms. His treatment of the thematic material is thoroughly Romantic, as would be expected, with development of themes and ideas from earlier movements being recalled and brought together in a grand, contrapuntal finale. The coda, heralded by cascades of notes reminiscent of pealing bells, somehow transports the music to a major key and provides a balm for the wrought drama of all that has preceded it.

The Chopin in the second half transported us to a different sound world, sunnier in most respects. The Barcarolle in F sharp major began with another commanding bass note from Grosvenor. In this and the other Chopin miniatures, he demonstrated playing of the utmost delicacy, achieving the most extreme quiet dynamics surely possible on his instrument. As was the case throughout the evening, there was always a sense that music was going somewhere. The playing was not totally blemish-free but there seemed to be a willingness to take risks with the music in order to make the moments of climax all the more powerful.

Goyescas is a fascinating and programmatic suite of pieces, written by Enrico Granados to celebrate the life and work of Spanish painter, Francisco Goya. Grosvenor presented two pieces from this suite, depicting a scene with one of los majos (the gallants) with a nightingale, thrillingly portrayed by Grosvenor in an evocative cadenza, and a tragic scene featuring the death of one of the gallants in the arms of his lover. He had full the measure of the melodrama in the latter scene. Perhaps sensibly, Grosvenor finished his recital with a much more upbeat miniature by Granados, his El pelele (the straw man), which depicts the traditional tossing around of a life-size straw man on a blanket by young women. Had he not done so, I might have left the hall with a much heavier heart. That Grosvenor can induce such feelings through his playing is surely testament to a mature, thoughtful musician and one I’d like to hear much more of. Two encores, one melancholy and one dazzling, meant I didn't have to wait long. 

****1