Benjamin Grosvenor review: Playful brilliance

Portland Piano International recitalist indulges in serious play.

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.

Benjamin Grosvenor. Photo: York Tillyer

Benjamin Grosvenor. Photo: York Tillyer

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.

Of the two Mazurkas, the C# minor, op. 30 no. 4, was especially notable. Anyone who’s tried to play it struggles with a stretched-out left hand while the right hand’s fingers cluster together like five kittens attacking a small bowl of milk; a labored effect is hard to avoid. Grosvenor’s performance flickered like a will-o’-the-wisp yet sang at all times, and his beautifully judged pauses, to let Chopin’s periodic feints to a foreign key ring in the air, were nothing short of magical.

As difficult as it may be to bring off this Mazurka, it’s easy compared to Grosvenor’s final two Chopin selections – the late, great Barcarolle, and the showpiece from earlier years, Andante Spianato et Grande Polonaise Brillante, which means, very roughly, “drift lazily and then party like crazy all night.” Grosvenor overcame the Barcarolle’s manifold pianistic complications seemingly effortlessly, starting with a near-miraculous sustain of the opening bass octave through multiple partial pedal lifts – his foot control must be nearly as phenomenal as his finger control. The manifold sonic depths of this masterwork, on the surface just a medley of pretty tunes, also were brought out at every turn. If anything, it was a bit too refined; I wanted him to uncork the prosecco towards the end and shout for joy, as it were. At the same time, a fast passage just before the final flourish went by so fast that, for once, richness of detail was momentarily lost. But these are quibbles, and no doubt his interpretation will only deepen in coming years.

On the other hand, Grosvenor already has all he needs for the Andante and Polonaise, which poured out of him as if he were making it up on the spot. I’ve never drifted more deliciously lazily, and the Polonaise was the manic epitome of “Brillante.” Then it was intermission, and already the audience was giving him a standing ovation.

Most of the second half was devoted to non-Viennese composers paying homage, through their own particular national and compositional glasses, to the Viennese waltz. Grosvenor’s intimate and exquisitely detailed style showed off Spaniard Enrique Granados’ youthful (1895) Poetic Waltzes at their tuneful best, and also gave Russian Alexander Scriabin’s op. 38 Waltz, written less than a decade later, a certain poetic shimmer, despite more straightforward interpretations than their virtuoso pianist composers would favor. Remarkably, bravura runs of right-hand octaves did not labor or darken the Scriabin one iota.

The piquant harmonies and contrasts of Maurice Ravel’s Noble and Sentimental Waltzes, written just a few years before Word War I, confused opening night audiences, who in a “name the composer” exercise, ascribed the set to a wide range of other young composers of the time, as well as that eternal outlier, Erik Satie. A century later, they still seem fresh, scorned as “too pretty” by the mid-20th century moderns, and apparently too scary for more recent generations who purvey blandness in reaction to those moderns. These waltzes need a firm but sensitive hand, or rather, two hands, to adjust each scrumptious dissonance to just the right level of emphasis to carry the narrative forward, rather like a master chef carefully adjusting each herb and spice to create a tasty dish. Grosvenor has that kind of control and he used it beautifully, from the brashest fanfares to the tenderest interludes.

After such excursions, it was only fitting to finish off with not only a true Viennese waltz, not only a fantastically virtuosic arrangement of a Viennese waltz, but the most famous Viennese waltz ever, The Blue Danube. Adolf Schulz-Evler may never have achieved fame as a composer, but he must have been a hell of a pianist to create such an arrangement. One wonders what the original work’s composer, Johann Strauss the Younger, thought of this transcription that crowds the keyboard with frills and flourishes like a whole dance floor whirling with waltzing couples. To project the famous melodies over all this pianistic mania would seem to take three or four hands, but no. Grosvenor’s two may have been maxed out, but there was still plenty of the joy of play in their dancing.

The crowd roared and roared with delight, and eventually he calmed us down with two unusual encores, Federico Mompou’s The Fountain and the Clock, which opens with a melancholy homage to Ravel’s only string quartet, and a scampering Erno Dohnányi concert etude to finish. He didn’t announce them though. Maybe, at the last, he couldn’t resist playing us a little too.

Read Jana Griffin’s interview with Grovesnor, and her review of Sunday’s concert.

Jeff Winslow is a Portland pianist and composer, who considers Chopin to be generally underrated in the latter capacity.

Comments are closed.