Top Ear

Grosvenor’s Dances

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Leonard Ip writes (translated from the Chinese by Jeremy Lee)

The British piano wunderkind Benjamin Grosvenor, now only 22, came to Hong Kong in February to play the Britten Piano Concerto with the Hong Kong Sinfonietta. Music lovers who have missed the concert (including me) need not despair—go to the shops and buy this disc, it’s too good to pass up!

This “Dances” album is Grosvenor’s third disc for Decca (before his contract with Decca he produced his own album “This and That”). As the piano expert Mark Ainley points out in the booklet notes, in 1909 Busoni wrote a letter to his student Egon Petri telling him to play a programme revolving around the theme “Dances” and consisting of both original pieces and transcriptions. Taking this idea, Grosvenor played such a recital in 2012 and devoted it to tape in July last year. As a listener, Grosvenor’s breadth of knowledge of the piano repertoire is of course greatly impressive, and the same can be said for his innovative choice of pieces: Bach’s Partita No. 4, two Chopin Polonaises (Op. 22 and 44), Scirabin’s Waltz and three Mazurkas (Op. 3/6, 4, 9), Granados’ Valses poeticos, Schulz-Evler’s Blue Danube transcription, Godowsky’s Albeniz Tango transcription, and ending with Morton Gould’s Boogie-Woogie Etude. Why do young and inexperience pianists have to play overplayed warhorses like Pictures at an Exhibition all the time? Besides, if they know that they have not reached artistic maturity, there’s no use forcing them to play “deep” pieces—they’re biting off more than they can chew.

Grosvenor seems to understand this principle, and the pieces he has hitherto chosen to play are very suited to his ability. In high-quality works of music the virtuosic element in Romantic music is not only used to show off technique: it also displays the spirit of free expression and imaginativeness in both the composer and the artist. Grosvenor undoubtedly has a great technique, but what he has in addition to that is a style that is at once freewheeling and full of life, and in this kind of music he soars. The Chopin Op. 22 Polonaise, Schulz-Evler Blue Danube and Boogie-Woogie Etude all bloom with color like a display of fireworks under Grosvenor’s hands, due to Grosvenor’s boundless palate of touch and flexible phrasing as well as his intricate weaving between lines. Any less imagination and technique and this sort of effect would hardly be created at all.

In Scriabin’s early “Chopinesque” Mazurkas and Granados’ light and blithe 8 Valses Poeticos (none of which exceeds 2 minutes), Grosvenor’s vivid imagination couldn’t suit the music better. The Op. 3/6 mazurka’s starting top F sharps glitter like will-o’-the-wisps, and the contrast he gives to the articulation in the left-hand melody, not to mention the flexible pulse, is impeccably judged, imbuing the piece with a truly mercurial “scherzando” character. Granados’ small pieces contain unbelievably beautiful melodies, and they emerge under Grovenors’ hands as eight refreshing and delightful palate-cleansers that are utterly charming. Towards the more densely textured Godowsky-Albeniz and Scriabin Waltz, Grosvenor opts for a more restrained use of pedal and brief yet forceful phrasing that prevents the textures from becoming too thick, leaving me with a clean yet elegant impression.

I believe whether Grosvenor’s playful style is suited to the restrained elegance of Bach or the austere grandeur of Chopin’s Op. 44 Polonaise will always be a matter of debate. I am inclined to feel that, since Bach’s Partitas (at least the 4th) stem from the style of court dances of that period, Grosvenor has a valid reason to play up the work’s dance-like elements in place of rigorousness—at least I find it enchanting. (Pianists such as Hewitt and Perahia who manage to encompass the whole stylistic spectrum are once in a blue moon.) But the Chopin Polonaise, subtitled “Tragic”, is a different case in that for it to really move (rather than impress) a tremendous strength of personality is called for—tragedy, more often than not, comes only at the price of experience. Think of how Horowitz or Rubinstein moved you with this piece (or even Pogorelich, whose recording for me is a peculiar success), and Grosvenor’s rendition can seem just a little “smart”. Grosvenor also recorded Liszt’s Gnomenreigen—which, unfortunately, is only included in the iTunes album and not the CD. Grosvenor, like a magician, brings the gnome in the paper vividly to life.

Decca’s full-bodied, moist recording is exemplary, and the airiness of the recording surely assists Grosvenor’s delicate touch. In sum, Grosvenor is a rare talent, and even if I have some reservations for his Bach and Chopin it only shows that a colossal star is in the making. Piano mavens please hear this recording yourself.

Details

  • Album name:  Dances
  • Performers:  Benjamin Grosvenor (piano)
  • Label:  Decca 478 5334
  • Sonics:  Stereo DDD
  • Total playing time:  1:20:09
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Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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