Review: Benjamin Grosvenor Dazzles In Recital at 92nd Street Y
By Brian Taylor, Contributing Writer, November 17, 2017
Hailed as a child prodigy who has gone on to a promising solo career, British concert pianist Benjamin Grosvenor dazzled New York audiences on Wednesday at the 92nd Street Y with an ambitious program both rangy and highly rewarding. He is a pianist who seems to have spent the majority of his twenty-five years on the piano bench, with an incorporeal connection to the instrument, and fingers like a sculptor’s, weaving revelatory interpretations of the music.
Grosvenor began the evening with Bach’s French Suite No. 5 in G major, his graceful approach grounded in the folksy dance elements of the Baroque keyboard masterpiece. But even from the first strains of the gentle, yearning Allemande, these were ethereal dances of the spiritual realm. In the contemplative Sarabande, he played with a crisp approach to the ornamented melodies, but with an anachronistically romantic freedom of phrasing between the hands, recalling pianists of yesteryear like Alfred Cortot. In the scampering Courante, and the joyous Gigue, his technique, while rivaling the motoric drive of Glenn Gould, never drew attention to itself and was always employed in service to the music.
In a daring programming gesture that paid off brilliantly, Grosvenor then played Brahms’s last solo Piano Pieces Op. 119, interspersed with Australian composer Brett Dean’s Hommage à Brahms, a set of three pieces conceived to be played as interludes between the three Brahms Intermezzi. While Grosvenor’s reading of the Brahms would please any purist, in his rhythmic suppleness and probing contrapuntal lines, the interjected responses by Dean (composed in 2013) impressed this listener in how successfully the contemporary compositions, with their Brahms-esque textures and piquant harmonies, invigorated the Romantic character pieces.
Grosvenor continued with a transcription of Debussy’s orchestral tone poem Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faun by Leonard Borwick, which provided him an opportunity to indulge his pianistic imagination, liberating Debussy’s masterpiece of orchestration from its symphonic format to be shaped soloistically. But, in order to replicate the rippling texture of the orchestral score, the piano transcription is weighed down by much cumbersome tremolo, and unwieldy jumping around. It was in making all of this sound effortless, with Debussy’s subtle wisps of melody flowing organically, that the pianist demonstrated his artistic virtuosity.
In a perfect gesture of maximum contrast, the rhapsodic impressionism of Debussy was followed by Alban Berg’s Sonata, Op. 1, an exemplar of early twentieth century German expressionism. The highly chromatic, densely constructed single movement sonata, composed in 1908, is impassioned and provides an interpretive challenge to modern performers owing to the obscure harmonic palette. Grosvenor’s reading of the piece succeeded owing to his instinctively romantic pianism, restrained by a discerning, miserly application of rubato.
Rounding out this magnificent performance, was a ravishing reading of Maurice Ravel’s supreme technical challenge, the ever colorful Gaspard de la nuit. Here again, Grosvenor demonstrated consummate artistry in his transcendence of the physical demands of the score. In the first movement, “Ondine,” Ravel’s enchanting melodies, divided ingeniously between the hands, and shrouded amongst a rippling, watery backdrop, came through as if straight from Grosvenor’s heart, unfazed by the fiendish challenge of making the music sound so natural. “Le Gibet,” the macabre second movement which depicts the carcass of a hanged man “reddening in the sunset,” was gripping, and in “Scarbo,” perhaps the most ruthless of Ravel’s creations, Grosvenor confirms his exceeding prowess, weaving a spell and leaving the audience breathless.
Cover: Benjamin Grosvenor; photo: Patrick Allen / Opera Omnia.