Review: Benjamin Grosvenor at St John the Evangelist

Benjamin Grosvenor, one of Britain’s most promising young pianists at age 22, chose his programme very wisely for his performance at St. John the Evangelist, with a balanced selection of pieces. Cesar Franck, Frederic Chopin and Enrique Granados were complemented by J. S. Bach (as adapted by the late-Romantic, early-modern Ferruccio Busoni), as well as Jean-Philippe Rameau, whose groundbreaking approach to harmony served as an inspiration to many Romantic composers. Fitting his performance to his selection, Grosvenor invariably opted to highlight emotion and passion in every piece, and although there were occasional lapses in technique, his interpretations were always adventurous without sacrificing nuance, displaying impressive maturity in his conception.

It is unfortunate that, relative to the strength of the rest of his programme, his performance of the first piece, Rameau’s Gavotte and Variations in A minor, didn’t quite come together, although he displayed his usual flashes of brilliance. He approachesdthe piece as if it were written during the Romantic Era, eschewing the consensus of historically-accurate performance practice by using rubato extremely liberally. He  managed to create compelling textures, making the theme ebb and flow like rolling waves. However, at other times, his pedaling often muddled faster passages, a problem perhaps compounded by the acoustics of the church. Variation 3, for example, lacked clarity, and it is probably counterproductive to bury individual notes into a generalised blur. The main problem with this interpretation was that the middle variations had vague textures that sound too much like each other, which is a big problem in a piece where each variation is harmonically identical and foregrounds texture. However, Grosvenor did redeem himself with the final variation, fully conveying a stately summation with a perfectly controlled, very broad ritardando. In particular, the final cadence was treated imaginatively with cascading arpeggiations that lingered a few moments longer than expected.

Grosvenor soared for the rest of the evening. He adapted himself better to the specific acoustics of the space with each piece, gaining clarity in fast passages. Bach’s Chaconne in D Minor, BWV 1004, was adapted by Busoni to fully exploit the resonances of the concert piano. Grosvenor never faltered technically, with crystal-clear counterpoint; in addition, his emotional range was very wide as he transitioned between passages that require grandness and those that require intimacy. He fully captured the lyrical sweetness of the contrasting central section, before adopting a hushed and pained tone for the transition back to the minor key, where the bass pattern suddenly proceeds with unusual vehemence into its final statement. Throughout the piece, Grosvenor often experimented with pointillistic textures, showing great creativity in doing so – a choice guided by the aim of demonstrating Bach’s intricate counterpoint in places where we least expect it.

Grosvenor carried his masterful control of emotional dynamics into his next piece, César Franck’s Prelude, Chorale and Fugue, Op. 21. Composed by Franck in imitation of Baroque forms, he adds in his own twist: inserting a chorale between the prelude and fugue. Grosvenor’s interpretation was both respectful and inventive as ever. In the prelude, he injected some wry wit through perfectly-timed deceptive cadences whilst in the chorale, each reiteration of the main motif (Franck having composed the piece with a cyclical structure) somehow became increasingly austere. His performance of the fugue emphasised the kaleidoscopic, devious directional twists that the highly chromatic subject takes in all its transformations. On top of that, he upheld the large-scale structure of the piece by making the delineations between the three sections unmissable, never blurring the transitions.

These large large works were undoubtedly the centerpieces of the programme; stately, grand and orchestral. From then on, Grosvenor turned his attention to miniatures, and the mood became gentler and less dramatically charged. He played four pieces by Chopin, where his love of rubato served him much better than in Rameau. Barcarolle in F-sharp major, Op. 60, was dreamy and vague, contrasted with the two Mazurkas, in F minor (Op. 63 no. 2) and C-sharp minor (Op. 30 no.4), clear and bright with his well-articulated ornamentations. The final Chopin piece, the Ballade no. 3 in A-flat minor, Op. 47, was delivered with drastic dynamic changes, Grosvenor purposefully pushing at the edges but never crossing the line into bathos. He rounded off the night with two pieces by Enrique Granados, a composer whose textures seem to be just as indebted to Chopin as to his native Spanish music. Goyescas o Los majos enamorados, Op. 11, is a piano suite based on paintings by Spanish artist Francisco de Goya, from which Grosvenor selected two pieces perfectly suited to his talent for mood-painting and ingenious textures. He imitated bird-calls with great fidelity in Quejas, o la maja y el ruisenor (known in English as simply Complaint). In El amor y la muerte (Love and Death), he emphasised feelings of strain and agitation without falling into the trap of sentimentality, building up melancholic tremblings before gently letting them subside. The final Granados piece, a stand-alone composition called El pelele (Straw-Man), was rolled out with a light-touch, moving through passages of good-natured humour before being rounded off with a unlaboured finish. Having traversed the melancholic to the dramatic, Grosvenor ended the evening with a satisfying calm.

A final, brief observation to demonstrate how genuinely the pianist cares for the finest detail in pursuit of the perfect sound: after being bothered by the slight, almost inaudible squeaking that his leather shoes keep making on the pedal due to the rain that had fallen earlier in the night, he apologized and asked the audience if he may perform the rest of the evening with his shoes off. The audience granted his request with a laugh; the remainder of the recital was untroubled by squeaks.

E. Kamalabadi

For more information about forthcoming concerts in the St John the Evangelist series, please visit their website. More information about Benjamin Grosvenor can be found here.

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