The autumn season of the Southbank Centre’s International Piano Series began in style with a spellbinding recital from Benjamin Grosvenor. Riding high, the former BBC New Generation Artist and BBC Young Musician Keyboard winner was the youngest British artist to secure a recording contract, and already has four recordings under his belt, winning awards and praise all round.

Benjamin Grosvenor ©
Benjamin Grosvenor

Grosvenor is a pianist with incredible focus and concentration. I had the privilege a couple of years ago seeing him practise in preparation for a performance of Shostakovich with the Hallé, on a busy concert hall stage being prepared around him. Yet he played as if in a silent recital hall, completely oblivious to the noisy activity surrounding him. There was a sense of this focus in his Mozart (the Sonata in B flat major, K333) last night – his nose only a few inches above the keyboard at times, with a fierce intensity of concentration and precision. Yet despite this focussed concentration, this was not a rigid performance. He still brought out the playfulness in Mozart’s bouncy themes, and gave just enough freedom to the written-out cadenza-like flourishes that dominate the final movement. He also infused the lyrical slow movement with subtle touches of rubato, and gave extra point to the shocking dissonance at the start of the second section, also adding menace to the repeated low bass notes here.

Chopin’s Sonata no. 2 in B flat minor which followed allowed Grosvenor to open up his playing, and immediately there was a feeling of expansion. However, the intensity remained in the turbulent first movement’s opening bars, before Grosvenor showed his delicacy and sensitivity in the developing rhapsodic tune that battles for this movement with fiery turbulence. There’s more fire in the devilish Scherzo, but once again, Grosvenor switched to a beguiling intimacy for the central section, pedalled in soft focus. The Funeral March had the right sense of relentless drive, yet with slight holds in the rhythm creating a stilted reluctance to the onward procession. The return of the march after the tender stillness of the central section, again heavily pedalled with a soft sheen, was even more dramatic, even frightening in its power, before dying away to nothing. The strange, almost fleeting moto perpetuo finale surged with turbulent unease, almost disappearing before the crashing final cadence.

Once again in Scriabin’s Sonata no. 2 in G sharp minor, Op.19, “Sonata-Fantasy”, Grosvenor combined his obvious command of the virtuosic demands with the ability to draw the audience into the moments of intimacy, showing great delicacy and subtlety in the Chopinesque melodic fragments that emerge from the stormy waves of the first movement. Scriabin’s moonlit seascape, set out in his own programme for the work, was brought to life in Grosvenor’s smooth watery cascades and atmospheric rippling textures, carried forward into to more turbulent moto perpetuo of the second movement.

Grosvenor selected just two movements from Goyescas, Granados’ tribute to the Spanish artist that he so revered. “Los requiebros” (Flirtations) transforms a popular Spanish song into an Aragonese jota, with halting dance rhythms surrounding a swaying melody which, challengingly for the pianist, is often found in the middle of the texture, with rhythmic flourishes above and below. Grosvenor brought the melody out smoothly without any sense of effort. He saved any sense of abandonment to the dance for the conclusion of the piece – perhaps a little more freedom could have been allowed earlier on here. The third movement of Goyescas, “El fandango de candil” (Fandango by candlelight), similarly combines a Spanish-infused melody with dance rhythms that swirl around the falling sequences of the tune. Here Grosvenor allowed himself more free rein, giving the dance real life and spirit.

A jota returned for Grosvenor’s finale, and what a finale. Liszt’s Rhapsodie espagnole, S254, subtitled “Folies d’Espagne et jota aroganesa”, is a towering extravanganza, drawing on said jota and the obiquitous La folia tune. He combines variations on both in a powerful display of virtuosity. Yet what made this a stunning finale from Grosvenor was his attention to the structure and melodic content, never allowing the virtuosic showmanship to overpower, often the problem with performances of Liszt. He showed us total command of the challenges, but also brought out the beauty of Liszt’s manipulation of melody and mood in a breath-taking display.

For his encore, Grosvenor delighted the audience with an effortlessly sparkling performance of Moszkowski’s brief Étude de Virtuosité, Op.72 no. 11 in A flat, ending with a humorously delicate flourish, a perfect foil to the weight of the evening’s programme. This was an impressive demonstration of Grosvenor’s intelligent programming, virtuosic command and developing stylistic range.