If Benjamin Grosvenor were a wine, his tasting notes might read something like: “an outstanding early vintage, this is already a fine, well-balanced red, with subtlety of flavour. Can be quaffed now though should mature exceedingly well.” There are two things that are constantly remarked upon by critics in relation to this British pianist: firstly, that he is young and secondly the remarkable tone he possesses. What is remarkable about his youth is the innate wisdom and depth in his playing. If I had to summarise his playing style in two words, they would be “elegant restraint”. Not for him the swaggering flashes of virtuosic self-exhibition: leave that to the hard-hitters of the piano competitions. What was striking about Grosvenor’s Dublin recital was his intelligent interest in the music, its voicing and its tonal gradation.

Benjamin Grosvenor © Sussi Ahlburg
Benjamin Grosvenor
© Sussi Ahlburg

The programming for this evening’s recital could be summarised as a concert of miniatures. There were no large scale-sonatas or works here; the longest piece was Chopin’s Andante spianato et Grande Polonaise brillante, a piece that lasts a little over ten minutes. At first glance there seemed to be a balanced choice of works presented from Bach through Scriabin to Granados yet on closer inspection there was a decided bias towards the Romantic/late-Romantic repertoire. All the Bach pieces were transcriptions by pianists and composers from the late 19th or early 20th century. The early Scriabin pieces were reminiscent of Chopin and Liszt, while Granados’ Valses Poéticos and the transcription of Strauss’ Blue Danube were brilliant examples of the late-Romantic repertoire. The choice of such programming meant that we were left with a little bit of Romantic indigestion of dainty morsels. I would have wished to hear Grosvenor grappling with something large-scale and interpretatively challenging.

Dressed in a casual, open-necked red shirt, he sat very quietly at the piano eschewing any extraneous movement. I was instantly reminded of descriptions of Rachmaninov sitting like a block of wood and yet managing to produce a golden, aristocratic sound. And Grosvenor is not unworthy of being compared to Rachmaninov having being described as a “Golden Age” pianist by American Record Guide. I have no wish here to quibble with the oft-invoked myth of the Golden Age of Pianists, but it is true that Grosvenor has a distinctive sound. In the five Bach transcriptions, a motley collection ranging from the scintillating Saint-Saëns Sinfonia from the Cantata BWV29 to the stolid Siloti transcription of Bach’s Prelude in E minor, he balanced the contrapuntal texture perfectly, with each of the inner voices receiving its own colour. In the Saint-Saëns Sinfonia there was a good suggestion of the entire orchestra in the octave passages, at times a busy harpsichord, at other times a violin solo.

For me, it was in the Chopin that music and musician most completely melded as one. The sound here was sharp in the attacking octaves of the Polonaise in F sharp minor. This Polonaise is a dark, brooding work, and Grosvenor’s crisp rhythm, sharp articulation and sparse pedalling made for an compelling interpretation. In the gentler sections, the dance style was well captured and yet there was a refusal to sentimentalize and thereby trivialize the seriousness of this work. The glorious Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise brillante followed, where Grosvenor’s tonal colour in the opening section was nothing short of superb. The most perfectly calibrated pianissimo would have done credit to Chopin’s own reputedly finely graded quiet tones. Grosvenor took a slightly relaxed approach to the Polonaise, delighting the ear with the most exquisite filigree passage work, and succeeded in bringing out inner voices that I had never heard before from amongst all the homophonic complexity. Despite such brilliance, there was a happy absence of the bravura an unassuming quality allowing the glories of the music to speak for itself, and concluding with an effortlessly victorious coda.

In the second half, the Scriabin Mazurkas lacked a little bit of intensity and were more introspectively played. I wondered whether they were the best choice as they had little of the charm of Chopin, and none of the harmonic complexities of Scriabin’s later works. This was my own reservation with this otherwise excellent performance. The delicate grace of Granados’ Valses Poéticos was brilliantly captured while concert concluded with the most celebrated of Strauss’ Viennese Waltzes, the Blue Danube in a brilliant arrangement by Schulz-Evler, that Grosvenor, with characteristic ease, made sound fun. From the panoply of virtuosic passagework, the melody of the waltz emerged shyly at first and then with growing confidence with the music growing ever more frenzied. He was met with a richly deserved standing ovation.