In his Chicago debut on Sunday afternoon, British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor wowed a Symphony Center audience with intensely passionate, yet wonderfully delicate playing. Hailed as a youthful sensation, this 24-year-old former child prodigy, with a growing list of accomplishments and catalogue of recordings, has already garnered several accolades and awards. Sunday’s recital lived up to all the hype and showed that Benjamin Grosvenor is definitely an artist worthy of attention.
Grosvenor’s program, with one or two exceptions, was generally of lesser-known works that, spanning 130 years, was surprisingly subdued. While it concluded with a piece by Franz Liszt, which is always a vehicle for fireworks and histrionics, much of the program was restrained and subtle, allowing the pianist to show off his seemingly endless artistry, as opposed to the ribald showmanship one might expect from a young performer trying to make his mark. This program reflected a deep understanding of the piano repertoire, while also allowing Grosvenor to exhibit tremendous range of emotion and impressive technical savvy with near perfect playing.
The opening piece was very characteristic, Robert Schuman’s Arabesque in C-major, Op. 18. This work, composed in 1839, was written near the end of a long series of works for solo piano that Schuman wrote to start his composing career. It begins quietly and delicately, allowing Grosvenor to show off a dynamic range that became especially evident in the contrasting sections of the work. He also demonstrated a distinctive ability to allow the melody to rise above all of the other notes filling in the aural fabric.
Up next was Mozart’s Piano Sonata in B-flat Major, K. 333, written in 1783. The piano in Mozart’s day had just come into its own, and his piano works, written for early instruments with short keyboards and his own small hands, are considered rather easy. Performing them does not take a lot of flair, so they rarely make it onto programs. Yet, as easy as these works appear, few composers reveal bad playing faster Mozart.
No problem Sunday afternoon. Grosvenor played with care and precision, seamlessly culling out Mozart’s well-developed themes. The pianist was especially precise through the rapid and lengthy runs in the finale, where each note was clearly sounded and played with equal touch and volume.
The first half of Sunday’s recital ended with the program’s only undeniable warhorse: Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata in C-sharp minor, Op. 27 No. 2. It would be easy to look askance at this popular work with the knowledge that Beethoven wrote many other great piano sonatas. The composer himself was puzzled at this sonata’s popularity.
What’s so special about it? — as it happens, just about everything. For a start, it is one of the completely successful experiments with structure and harmony from Beethoven’s early period. As famous as the opening movement has become, beginning a sonata-style composition in such a way for any instrumentation is surprisingly rare, virtually unprecedented when the work was written in 1801. Another innovation was the use of dark, minor keys throughout the first movement and the finale, with few excursions into the major, which Beethoven reserved for the brief scherzo, middle movement. The whole work builds to a finale that achieves unheard of excitement and energy, levels that will be routine in Beethoven’s music only a few years hence.
On Sunday Grosvenor recreated the essence of this music in its entirety. His treatment of the opening movement captured its eerie feeling, yet there was still some warmth. He played the finale superfast, while nearly note perfect. He extracted every morsel of passion, completely engrossing the audience, making the one or two missed notes completely harmless. The run of half tones that mark’s the sonata’s climax was spot-on perfect.
The second half of the recital opened with another sonata, this one of the thoughtful and restrained variety, by Russian composer Alexander Scriabin: Piano Sonata No. 2 in G-sharp minor, Sonata-Fantasy. Written in the 1890s, it opens with a quiet series of chords that eventually lead to a charming, nostalgic melody. Interspersed are loud moments of dramatic tension. The finale has the opposite make-up: intense drama interspersed with quiet moments of reflection. Grosvenor’s touch handled the contrasts beautifully, especially when he concluded the opening movement with a long stretch of melody, quietly rendered.
Along similar lines, but with slightly elevated intensity, is a work by Spanish composer Enrique Granados, Goyescas, Op. 11, which was inspired by the paintings of Francisco Goya. Grosvenor played two pieces from this set of six, Los Requibos and El fango de candil. Both works feature dance-like syncopated rhythms with lots of moving parts and shifting feelings. Showing innate sensitivity with these mood shifts, the pianist kept the focus on the melody, which sang clearly throughout.
Grosvenor finally turned to sheer grandiosity at the recital’s conclusion: Liszt’s Rhapsodie Espagnole from 1863. Restraint is not a word typically associated with Liszt, and from the opening, extended flourish, Grosvenor let go completely. Even here, however, subtle artistry emerged in his delicate treatment of quieter passages that interrupt the pandemonium. It was a brilliant way to conclude a brilliant recital, demonstrating this young pianist has the complete package.
The audience responded with an extended and lively standing ovation, which Grosvenor acknowledged with two encores that kept up the spirit of Liszt: Moszkowsi’s Etude in A-flat Major, Op. 72, No. 11, and Kapustin’s Etude in E Minor, Op. 40, No. 3, Toccatina. This pianist can look forward to a wonderful future.