In one of his rare performances on this side of the Atlantic, Benjamin Grosvenor offered a recital as part of the famed Sunday afternoon “Piano Series” at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall. As expected from this young, probing musician, it was an eclectic program mixing musical schools and styles and joining popular opuses with seldom played ones. You could hardly find a unifying theme for the chosen collection of works but there were indeed numerous connections points between adjacent pieces: Schumann’s Arabeske sharing hints of a rondo structure with the last part of Mozart’s "Linz" Sonata K.333; the almost vocal line in Schumann’s coda finding an echo in Mozart’s voice like piano themes; the summoning of an Aragonese jota in Granados’ Los requiebros (flatteries) and Liszt’s Rhapsodie espagnole; Beethoven’s Sonata Op.27, no. 2 “Quasi una fantasia” and Scriabin’s Sonata no. 2, Op.19 (Sonata-Fantasy) both starting uncharacteristically with a slow movement.

Benjamin Grosvenor © Todd Rosenberg Photography
Benjamin Grosvenor
© Todd Rosenberg Photography

Grosvenor began his musical exploration with a very fine rendition of Schumann’s Arabesques. As with everything else during this afternoon recital, it was a rather controlled performance, not letting any romantic effusions to take over his pianism. He made clear the distinctions between Florestan and Eusebius segments without exaggerating their opposition. At the same time, it wasn’t at all a “standard” interpretation, the pianist imposing sometimes unusual tempi and pauses, not being afraid to be blamed for a “lack of respect” for the original score.

In Grosvenor’s hands, Mozart’s Sonata no. 13 in B flat major sounded like a true classical composition, approached with mathematical precision and outmost concentration. As in Schumann, he carefully underlined minor details – a dissonance here, a whiff of rubato there – letting melodies sing with lightness, delicacy, without any overbearing.

It’s very difficult to bring a fresh approach to the overplayed and overpopularized Moonlight Sonata without constantly keeping in mind the music’s extraordinary innovative spirit. If one ignores chronologies, as the British pianist did in this recital, Beethoven’s sonata was somehow a projection of the previous works in the program. The Adagio sostenuto, played with an unwavering rhythmical drive, had though a Schumannesque, fantasy-like quality. The Presto agitato, immaculately interpreted from a technical point of view, seemed to be related to Mozart’ piano works, avoiding all hints of romantic virtuosity.

Benjamin Grosvenor © Todd Rosenberg Photography
Benjamin Grosvenor
© Todd Rosenberg Photography

Played after the intermission, Scriabin’s Second Sonata has more in common with Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata than it appears from its musical “clothing” invoking Chopin and Impressionism. The composer himself commented in his program notes that he wanted to invoke the moonlight over water in the recapitulation of the Andante and the stormy ocean in the Presto. Ignoring as insignificant all the tremendous technical difficulties of the score, Grosvenor focused on the great subtlety of the melodic fragments from the almost Janáček-like interjections at the beginning of the Andante to the Chopinesque sound cascades towards the end. I’ve listened to Grosvenor playing the same Scriabin Sonata five years ago, at the Frick Museum in New York, and you could perceive now a different level of maturity even if the technique was always there.

The recital ended with music inspired by the colors and rhythms of Spanish folk dances. It’s a real pity that Granados’ Goyescas suite is so rarely played. Grosvenor selected just two fragments – Los requiebros and El fandango de candil (The fandango by candle light) – beautifully rendering the impulsiveness diffused through the music, avoiding any excessive use of rubato. It would have been wonderful if he would have played the entire suite instead of Liszt’s flashy, virtuosic, Rhapsodie espagnole. It’s true though that one would have missed then several special moments such as the superb left-hand introduction of the La Folia dance theme. The pianist’s ability to easily bring out the melodic qualities, the shifts in mood and color from amidst the swirling pyrotechnics is entirely remarkable for someone so young.

Benjamin Grosvenor is still growing as a musician. From what I’ve heard this past Sunday in Chicago, he might be as formidable an interpreter of Debussy’s music as another famous non-French pianist, Walter Gieseking. His poetic but razor sharp approach to music making, his subtle, non-showy technique bring to mind the recordings of the late German pianist. Allegedly, Grosvenor doesn’t yet commit himself to Debussy’s music. Hopefully, he will soon.