The word 'prodigy' is unavoidable when writing about Benjamin Grosvenor, or so it appears for the headline writers. Having eschewed many big concert dates and growing as an artist in smaller halls, he is clearly setting himself up for the long haul. This ambitious, sold-out Cambridge concert showed both how brilliant a pianist he already is, and hinted at how far he could go in the future.

Benjamin Grosvenor, © Sussie Ahlburg
Benjamin Grosvenor,
© Sussie Ahlburg

The programme set up a concert of two halves, the first more challenging interpretatively, the second showing off a notably catholic late-Romantic repertoire. The freedom of Grosvenor's playing in the Scriabin and Ravel, in particular, showed how shackled were his Bach and Chopin. Yet even here there was playing of startling virtuosity and musical understanding. In Bach's Partita no. 4, for instance, the quicker movements were perhaps too abrupt. Grosvenor's blurry ornaments and focus on the right hand obscured clarity and some details in pursuit of a harpsichord-like timbre. But in the Allemande Grosvenor combined neuroticism and stillness through subtle shading of the vocal line, managing to balance Bach's desolation and controlled rapture. The Aria juxtaposed puckishness and pomp, its cutely ornamented final chords delighting as much as the character brought to the Menuet. And in the Gigue there was, even if contrapuntal clarity again was sacrificed, an almost Ravelian lightness.

From the opening slash of the Chopin sonata onwards, Grosvenor's tone and style were of another generation. He is happy to take risks even if wrong notes follow, and refuses to play to the gallery unless it makes musical sense. His golden sound is worlds away from the glassy shallowness of many competition-soured pianists, the aristocratic subtlety of his phrasing recalling the mid-century greats. There is, of course, still a distance to go for this nineteen-year-old. The Chopin's Allegro maestoso first movement began in medias res, but lost intensity and structure as it progressed in fits and starts. The simplicity of the poised Largo was powerful, but it paled in comparison to the depths found earlier in the Bach. Yet in the terse Scherzo there was extraordinary lightness, and the torrential finale built exceptionally by contrasting galloping martial articulation with terrifying runs high up on the keyboard. Rubato was nuanced yet it told, and here was the existential drama missing from the first and third movements. One glimpsed the future, and through it the past.

The second half was Grosvenor at his best now. So much seems to reside in the soundworld of early Scriabin, especially in this Sonata Fantasy (and also some of the early Études). In this piece's programme, Scriabin talked of turbulent oceanic depths, but the tribulations of the twentieth century on the brink of which he wrote it are also apparent in its tragic lyricism. The dappled moonlight of the opening bars – Scriabin took his cues from Beethoven – were delicately done, the mysteries of darkness fully apparent in the first movement. The agitations of the second, with textures of blues and blacks, encouraged Grosvenor to let go. There was nothing comforting about his mechanised left hand, or the tortured distant romance of the rising right, tossing and turning in the rolling foams.

The Rachmaninov shorts which followed were no virtuoso showpieces either. These were well-chosen, less-heard pieces, if not rarities. Any young pianist with technical gifts can make these pieces sound big and heartfelt, but such sophistication as Grosvenor brings to his phrasing is nothing but impressive. His emotional range, too, puts many in the shade. Take the swooning of the Étude-Tableau, or the shape-shifting Polka de W.R., ending in winking cheek.

But it was Ravel's Gaspard de la Nuit which was most impressive, as it is on Grosvenor's debut Decca recital. Coyness dominated 'Ondine', Grosvenor's febrile detailing of the mists showing that this was to be much more than a razzle-dazzle showpiece. 'Le Gibet' evoked the still focus of the earlier Bach, though its ravishing beauty didn't quite attain the last ounce of mystery others might bring. 'Scarbo', though, was nonchalant in its rapid brilliance, its spiky, abrupt tendencies verging on the grotesque, its lyrical ones moving towards the elemental. And yet, peering through the undoubted technical excellence, there was aching humanity in the way lines sang.

In the Ravel and the Scriabin as well as in his two encores, Grosvenor showed what his listeners can look forward to. Confidence like this will, eventually, transfer to works like the Chopin. And then there will be little to stop him.