Album Review: Benjamin Grosvenor Homages


When I spoke to Benjamin Grosvenor in 2012 during a brief visit to Sydney to launch his album Rhapsody in Blue, the young British pianist commented that although his repertoire embraced composers from JS Bach through Chopin and Scriabin, to Saint-Saëns, Ravel and Gershwin, the Romantics have been his first love. His favourite composer at the time was Chopin. He added “I didn’t like Bach at all till I was 14. I’d only heard very dry academic readings of his music, until I heard a recording of the Well-Tempered Clavier by Samuel Feinberg, who used the piano to its full capability and really opened my mind to what Bach’s music could be.”

With his latest album release Homages, on the Decca label, (483 0255) Grosvenor has stayed close to the repertoire he loves, playing music by Bach-Busoni, Mendelssohn, Franck, Chopin and Liszt. Most of the works he has selected for this album are by Romantic era composers, based on ideas from counterpoint. In Grosvenor’s words, they are works whose composers “make something new from the old.”

Throwing open the gates to these perspectives is Busoni’s transcription of Bach’s Chaconne from the Partita for solo violin BWV 1004. A fearsome piece which Menuhin dubbed “the greatest structure for solo violin that exists” and which Joshua Bell described as “not just one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, but one of the greatest achievements of any man in history. It’s a spiritually powerful piece, emotionally powerful, structurally perfect.” The theme and variations form of Busoni’s bold and expanded arrangement is an excellent means by which Grosvenor establishes his credentials.

Busoni’s arrangement gives vent to just about every pianistic technique that exists and beyond. He demands that the pianist adopt the style of an organist by combining different registers of the piano and in the style of an orchestral musician, by using markings like martellato and quasi tromboni. Grosvenor pays due homage to both styles with his mastery of technique and mature insight.

In the two selections from Mendelssohn’s Six Preludes and Fugues opus 35 by Mendelssohn (No 1 in E minor and  No 5 in F minor). Grosvenor has chosen four intensely contrasted moods to explore. He plays the Preludes with a gentle lyricism, the E minor fugue is pensive and the F minor is dazzling.

Franck liberated himself from the restraints of adhering too strictly to theoretical dictates and let his heart rule his head in writing the Prélude, Choral et Fugue. As the pianist Alfred Cortot is quoted as saying in the CD liner, the Fugue, in the context of the whole work, is described as ’emanating from a psychological necessity rather than from a principle of musical composition.’ Grosvenor gives a sublime rendition of this gloriously romantic yet spiritual work.

Chopin’s Barcarolle opus 60 is the perfect stylistic and thematic transition away from the metaphysical. Grosvenor’s playing is supple but delicate and in the music of Chopin, Grosvenor generously demonstrates the athleticism and subtlety of his abilities.

The CD ends with a triptych by Listz – the Gondoliera, Canzone and Tarantella from Venezia e Napoli S162 from Supplément aux Années de pèlerinage II: Italie. Grosvenor paints a sumptuous musical picture of these two exotic cities, giving Gondoliera a sense of yearning for the city that Liszt never visited but idealised in his imagination, a darker Canzone and a feverish Tarantella.

The digital release contains 6 additional tracks of Ravel’s  Le de Tombeau de Couperin.

Born in 1992, Grosvenor was 6 when he started learning the piano with his mother. He went on to study piano at London’s Royal Academy of Music when he was 16, by which time he had already won the keyboard section of the BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2004, aged 11. In 2012, Grosvenor was awarded two Gramophone Awards – the ‘Instrumental Award’ and ‘Young Artist Award’, making him Gramophone’s youngest-ever double award winner. He also won a Classic Brit ‘Critics Choice Award’ for his Chopin/Liszt/Ravel CD.

Homages is a cleverly curated and brilliantly performed. It is an impressive display from a young musician who is still early in his career.

Shamistha de Soysa for SoundsLikeSydney©


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