Friday, November 02, 2012

Benjamin Grosvenor's Southbank debut

As you know, Benjamin Grosvenor, 20, is the darling of every pianophile in Britain and beyond. We were there in force to hear his debut recital at the Southbank's Queen Elizabeth Hall on Wednesday night, which gratifyingly was packed out.

Benjamin Grosvenor as a performer, it has to be said, is the absolute antithesis of everything that most serious piano fans loathe about certain older, more celebrity-conscious performers who pull in the crowds. He has a modest, unspoilt presence on the platform, the informal (red shirt, dark trousers) look of the lad next door and a rather surprised smile when he spots there are people listening to him and clapping, as if he hadn't quite expected it. He's a smallish youth with enormous and beautiful hands that look almost incongruous - as if they've been grafted on from the spirit of Friedman or Moiseiwitsch.

It's his virtuosity, delicacy, sparkle and whirligig whooshes of inspiration that tend to be noticed first, but perhaps something else is even more vital: he is not afraid to play quietly. Instead of projecting every phrase out to the back row, he focuses on intense beauty of tone in the pianissimo range and makes the audience come to him, drawing them in to a type of enhanced listening experience. Scarily few musicians dare to do this today, a few exceptions being Zimerman, Perahia and Anderszewski - good company indeed. He doesn't overpedal: clarity remains uppermost, and in his Bach Fourth Partita, which opened the concert, touches of pedal served just to enhance a resonance or mark the ambience of a rhythm here and there.

In the Bach, too, he homed in on the exact quality that makes its Allemande so mesmerising. This movement is a piece of such beauty that it wouldn't have disgraced the St Matthew Passion; its increasingly florid melody has about it a meditative, stream-of-consciousness quality of improvisation that seems to exist in a state of grace, in every sense. Benjamin caught the precise nuance of its still heart and inner radiance. This takes some doing. It shone beside a fleet Overture and Gigue, a lively, supple Courante, and much elegance in the brief extras with which Bach peppers this most expansive of his keyboard partitas - all of it enhanced by a keen structural intelligence which found the strength of line and harmonic progressions underlying every filigree twist and turn. If I wished he'd played the repeats, it was just because this was music-making of such excellence that it would have been nice to hear it all again.

The Chopin F sharp minor Polonaise and the Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise revealed something more problematic. For some reason, Grosvenor was playing a Yamaha. This powerful piano firm has, of course, developed its instruments considerably in the past 20 years or so, but it is still rare to see one on a London concert platform, and its tone did not prove especially welcome. Benjamin's personal sound, which is intensely beautiful with never a crash or thump, was still there, without a doubt. But I've heard him play quite a number of times before, and I missed something that he usually provides: colour. It is obvious to anyone who follows his progress closely that variety of colour is paramount to him. Yet the Yamaha tone, which tends to the overbright and even the glassy at times, just does not encompass the palette of mellowness and myriad shadings that he's capable of. The Bach worked well enough on it, but the Chopin needed that range. This was slightly frustrating for anyone who's heard Benjamin conjour those colours and therefore wished he would be able to do so on such a vital occasion as this. Presumably he had, in some way, shape or form, chosen the instrument - or maybe he is too modest to make a fuss about it? Please, someone, give the boy the chance to choose a favourite Steinway himself next time?

For the second half, Benjamin kept up the dance theme established first in the Bach with a selection of rare pianophilia delights: a selection of Scriabin's early mazurkas and a heady Russian waltz, eight utterly enchanting waltzes by Granados (which are a treat for any keen pianist to read through - you can find some of them in a recent issue of Pianist magazine), and the whole lot topped off by Schulz-Evler's deliciously dizzy virtuoso transcription of The Blue Danube. The charm of Benjamin's phrasing, his zippy lightness of touch, sprinkled a heart-warming trail of fairydust across the byways of this enchanting and original selection. He provided three encores, too: Godowsky's transcription of the famous Albeniz tango, then Liszt's Gnomenreigen - very fast, these gnomes, enjoying a whirlwind, impish outing as if testing the capabilities of a new pianistic Ferrari - and Benjamin's party-piece, Morton Gould Boogie-Woogie Etude, to close.

Piano aside, it was an evening that nobody will forget in a hurry. As my colleague Michael Church comments in his review for The Independent, "with virtuosity of this calibre, allied to a probing musical intelligence, the sky's the limit."

Meanwhile, it is lovely to see that Benjamin has become an "ambassador" for the superb London Music Masters' Bridge Project, designed to encourage instrumental music tuition in inner-city primary schools. Here's what they said, announcing it the other night:

London Music Masters (LMM) announces the multi-award-winning British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor as its ambassador to champion the cause of music in schools.  The former child prodigy, whorecently became one of the youngest ever winner of two Gramophone Awards and won the ‘Critics Choice Award’ at the Classic Brits, will act as a role model for children on LMM’s Bridge Project in some of London’s most deprived boroughs. Born to a musical family in Southend-on-Sea, Grosvenor is keen to encourage children to learn music at an early age and  for every child to have this opportunity:
'It was a great pleasure to visit Jessop Primary School and to witness the remarkable work being done by LMM there. It was touching to see the enthusiasm the children demonstrated for their instruments and for the learning process, and I hope that as an ambassador for this charity I can help them with their important work.'
LMM Bridge Project
LMM’s Bridge Project was established five years ago to make classical music accessible to all - by providing a sustained programme of high-quality music instrumental tuition in inner-city primary schools.  Working with children from financially disadvantaged and culturally diverse backgrounds, the Bridge Project places music at the heart of the school curriculum from an early age and enables interaction with exceptional musicians.  The Bridge Project’s driving goal is to address the lack of cultural and ethnic diversity among classical music professionals and audiences - making music an instrument of change.