by JEFF WINSLOW
“Play the piano” is such a common phrase that concertgoers – and more to the point, pianists – often forget the joy and spontaneity that lives in the verb, or only experience its manipulative evil twin: “play the audience.” British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor has already achieved such mastery at age 22 that you know he spent thousands of hours practicing at an age when most kids play out in the sun, or these days in front of a video screen, instead. But all that work couldn’t knock the play out of him, as concertgoers were blessed to experience last Monday evening at Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall.
We heard it almost from the very first notes of Frederic Chopin’s first Ballade, when he added atmosphere to the declamatory intro by subtly delaying the release of pitches that define its harmony. It continued when he added a kind of Viennese waltz swing to the triple meter of the otherwise pensive main melody. Later he apparently couldn’t resist adding resonance to a few dramatic moments by adding extra bass an octave below what Chopin wrote. This last move didn’t really work – Chopin was as mindful of counterpoint as harmony and he likely would have frowned, at the very least, at extra bass that doesn’t form part of a countermelody – but there was no denying Grosvenor’s intimate engagement with the work, which made it seem to leap off the stage.
This was all the more remarkable given that he rarely swelled to full volume. One of his most telling details was another subtle one. Whenever that pensive melody returns, it’s intensified almost to the point of dread by the soft return of the triple meter on a single insistent pitch in the bass. Grosvenor wisely dropped the Viennese touch at such moments, but beyond that, he dared us to look into the dark corner with a sinister staccato delivery.
Such things never got beyond play, unlike some young virtuosos who impose outlandish interpretations as if in a contest of wills with the composer. In that most playful of Ballades, the A-flat major, it wasn’t hard to imagine we were hearing Chopin himself at the piano. Detail after detail was lovingly brought out, yet without sacrificing overall narrative feeling, and without any ostentatious fireworks, which the composer abhorred. In contrasting F major sections, I wished for even more playful exploration of complex harmony via pedaling, as hinted at by the countermelody Grosvenor brought out in the last one, but that I even considered such a possibility testifies to his extraordinary control and delicacy.