As part of Birmingham’s International Concert Season, there’s a series of lunchtime performances from rising stars, entitled “Bright Futures”. Benjamin Grosvenor has done so much already by the tender age of 20 that one wonders how much brighter it can get! Back in 2004 he won the keyboard final of BBC Young Musician of the Year, since when he’s had huge success globally as a performer and recording artist. His association with the BBC has continued, being a member of their New Generation Artists scheme in 2010/12, and wowing a First Night of the Proms audience in 2011. Graduating from the Royal Academy of Music last summer, he was awarded “The Queen’s commendation for excellence”. I should think today’s audience would be inclined to agree with Her Majesty.

Benjamin Grosvenor © Sussie Ahlburg
Benjamin Grosvenor
© Sussie Ahlburg

It must be quite tricky deciding how to programme an hour-long concert, aiming for a sense of coherence whilst incorporating contrasting elements to entertain single-handedly within such a short time-frame. Grosvenor achieved this by choosing essentially dance music, interwoven with an exploration of composers’ influence upon one other. This idea was set up nicely with three transcriptions of pieces by J.S. Bach, Wilhelm Kempff taking his Siciliano in G minor from the Flute Sonata BWV1031, which gave Grosvenor the opportunity to coax a delightful range of colours from the piano, apparently making it sing as well as dance. His body language, leaning into the piano or straightening up according to the contours of the dynamics and tempi, spoke volumes about his feeling for the music. Transcriptions by Saint-Saëns followed, the Largo from the Solo Violin Sonata BWV1005 and the Sinfonia from the Cantata “Wir Danken Dir, Gott, Wir Danken Dir” BWV29, the latter jubilant choral work having in turn been transcribed by Bach himself into the opening of a violin partita. At the piano, it was astounding how many voices were conjured up by just two hands.

Back to the dance, with Chopin’s Polonaise in F sharp minor, Op. 44. Dignified stateliness preceded a forceful, passionate motif, sounding out dozens of times over, with more of the mazurka about it than the polonaise, before returning seamlessly to the original theme, as though coming home. Chopin’s Andante spianato et Grande polonaise brillante, Op. 22 is a kind of hybrid, the slower, meditative opening section being grafted onto an earlier piece for piano and orchestra. Grosvenor was in total control of the striking variations, and his assured touch made for very easy listening. The explosive finish set the audience buzzing.

A pair of pieces from the Chopin-influenced Russian composer Scriabin followed, a selection of three numbers from his early work 12 Mazurkas, Op. 3 – even then exhibiting a sense of improvisation – and Waltz, Op. 38, a later work displaying the evolution of a much more personal style. Certainly unconventional as waltzes go, it was nevertheless rich and romantic, conjuring up the swaying physicality of the dance, not least due to the eloquence and poise of the rests.

The final official item took us back to more familiar waltz territory, but with a twist: arabesques on The Blue Danube. Half a century after Johann Strauss II had composed the original famous waltz, Polish composer Adolf Schulz-Evler paraphrased and transformed the music weaving arabesques in and out of it – sufficient to make any pianist giddy, I should have thought, but Grosvenor’s lightness of touch, his hands dancing on the piano, made it a joy to listen to. It was clearly a popular choice with the audience, and the applause was sufficiently extended to result in not one but two encores. Shine on into the future, Benjamin Grosvenor!