In a return to live-streamed performances, albeit to an empty concert hall, the Barbican welcomed Benjamin Grosvenor. As the interior lights twinkled from violet and blue to red, and a skilled videographer was at the right place at the right time as the pianist’s hands swept over the keys, it was easy to understand how this young musician has captivated the musical world. His impressive skill, interpretative style and unique tonal sensitivity were on full display in a challenging program of Romantic and 20th-century music.

Benjamin Grosvenor
© Mark Allan | Barbican

Unlike many of his peers at the concert grand, Grosvenor kept histrionics to a minimum as he played with unchanging visage throughout the rigors of notoriously difficult works. Most impressive was the extraordinary variety of tonal effects, colors, and rhythmic intensity that he drew from the Steinway, one of three pianos he “test drove” before the recital over a period of several days.

The concert began and ended with arrangements of two of the loveliest melodies in Western classical music. The first was Liszt’s arrangement of Schubert’s Ave Maria, while the encore was Godowsky’s setting of Saint-Saëns’ The Swan. If sound could be dipped into gold and whisked into gossamer, it would come close to giving a visual impression of these ethereal airs as spun by this artist.

Between the delicacy of these two miniatures, however, Grosvenor faced some formidable pianistic challenges. He moved quickly, almost abruptly from the prayer-hushed opening to Chopin’s Piano Sonata no. 3 in B minor. Grosvenor faces Chopin head-on, and does not even attempt to hide behind a barrage of special effects or virtuosic distractions. He tackles the difficulties – technical and interpretive – with both feeling and critical thinking. There are no sugary or sappy expressions, just intelligent ideas and the relationships between these ideas, yielding an inevitable flow of music and sensation. For the listener, the combination is irresistible.

Benjamin Grosvenor
© Mark Allan | Barbican

Grosvenor provided exciting renditions of the musical gems that compose Ginastera’s Danzas Argentinas, the first and last filled with South American rhythm and daring, the second, descriptive of “a delightful young girl”, mesmerizing in its lavish beauty.

The final work was Ravel’s brooding Gaspard de la nuit, a brilliant tone poem for piano that evolves from a vision of the swirling haunts of the water-sprite, Ondine. Grosvenor unleashed her dance in a Ravelian world of dark colors and startling impressions. Artist and instrument become one in a tale that rises in rhapsody and falls in a shower of high notes as bright as shattered glass. I watch his knuckles slide up the white keys, then down the black, as though stroking the neck of a cat.

A heart-stopping tumble of sounds and finding the intelligence that both guides and motivates: that is the gift of this impeccable artist.


This performance was reviewed from the Barbican's live video stream

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