Monday, May 8, 2017

Portrait of a Young Musician

I had missed Benjamin Grosvenor’s last two appearances in Vancouver, and I was determined not to miss his recital yesterday. I am happy to say that I enjoyed the performance thoroughly.

It is an inspired idea to begin a recital with Schumann’s Arabeske, Op. 18. This miniature masterpiece from the composer’s “piano years”, where he composed some of his greatest works for the instrument, is a real test of a pianist’s musicality and the fluidity of his or her playing. Grosvenor passed both challenges with flying colours. Moreover, Grosvenor played the work with beautiful subtlety, simplicity and flexibility - a souplesse - as well as a hushed quality. I also really appreciated his timing of the fermata in between sections. The coda (Zum Schluss) had an incredible feeling of intimacy and delicacy.

Mozart’s Sonata in B-flat major, K. 333 is, I feel, one of the composer’s greatest of the genre. Grosvenor has a luminous quality in his Mozart playing, as if every note is one of a long string of precious pearls, as well as a wonderful attention to details in the left hand. There is a beguiling lightness in his playing of the many scale runs, and lightness in the tail ends of the phrases. The brief G minor theme at m. 64 of the third movement was particularly beautifully played. I loved his little interjections in the left hand at mm. 156 to 158, where I could almost see Figaro lurking in the background. The young pianist also conjured up some bold colours in the brief cadenza towards the end of the movement.

Yes, it is possible to bring freshness and originality to Beethoven’s Sonata in C-sharp minor, Op. 27, No. 2, the so-called Moonlight sonata, as Grosvenor did yesterday afternoon. I agreed with his tempo choice, respecting Beethoven’s alla breve indication – as well as his tempo relationship between the movements. There was a sense of nobility and elegance in his playing of the all-too-familiar opening movement. In both the first and second movements, there was beautiful voicing of the chords. His effective pedaling in the brief second movement created some lovely overtones, especially in the Trio section. In the stormy third movement, there was a feeling of control and clarity in the midst of the incredible drama. He also never lost the beauty of the sound in the many sf chords, without losing their explosive quality.

Grosvenor opened the second half of his programme with Scriabin’s Sonata No. 2 in G-sharp minor, Op. 19 (Sonata-Fantasy). The pianist managed to inject a logic and structure to the rather loosely constructed, albeit beautiful, first movement which, under the wrong hands, could impart a feeling of meandering. His playing of the Chopin-like (Chopin on steroids though!) opening and closing sections made me want to hear more of his Chopin playing. In this as well as the second movement, he drew upon his considerable tonal palette and his awesome pianistic resources – as he did for all the works in this second half.

I imagine that Grosvenor must be working his way through Enrique Granados’ monumental Goyescas, for he also included pieces from the cycle, I think, in his last recital here. It is very wise for him to add one or two works from the set every year, because these are certainly pieces that take time to make one’s own. I thought that his playing of the opening of Los Requiebros was very stylish, capturing the obvious Spanish inflections of especially the left hand. Although pianistically impeccable, I did feel that the young artist is still finding his way towards interpreting this complex work. I did not feel that he has arrived at an overall concept of the entire work. In El Fandango de Candil, the attacks in the opening chords could be sharper; overall, the Spanish flavour, or “taste”, is somewhat lacking. I would say again, though, that he rose well above the many daunting pianistic challenges from first note to last. In time, I am certain that he will make these pieces his own.

The pianist ended his programme with Franz Liszt’s Spanish Rhapsody. I thought that his interpretation of the work has given us every ounce of music that the work contains. His timing was impeccable, and he (thankfully) did not fall into the trap of pounding the instrument in the many dramatic passages, always retaining his beautiful piano sound. There was always a feeling of control, that there is energy yet to be harnessed – rare qualities in so young a musician.

All in all, a beautifully put together and very satisfying recital, giving us a glimpse into many facets of this incredibly talented and musical artist. It is obvious that the sky is the limit for this young man, and we wait to witness the next chapter of his artistic journey.

Patrick May
May 8, 2017

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