By Sebastian Spreng, Visual Artist and Classical Music Writer
Benjamin Grosvenor is slated to play in Miami on Feb. 19 and his latest recording is a tantalizing introduction. Armed with an insolent youthfulness and wise beyond his years, Grosvenor is a genuine rara avis. His a career started at the tender age of 11 and has seen a meteoric rise including two Gramophones. According to reports, Grosvenor the first British pianist to join the DECCA lineup since Clifford Curzon and Moura Lympany. A fresh, exquisite virtuoso, Grosvenor is in many ways reminiscent of the young Evgeny Kissin, even the fact that he likes traveling with his family. Now at twenty years old, the elusive performer is one of the most exciting artists on the world’s stage.
His second disc (and the debut concerto recording), titled Rhapsody in Blue, confirms it. It includes Saint-Saëns’ Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Ravel’s Concerto in G and the eponymous Gershwin masterpiece in its original version for jazz band. It’s an imaginative program made up of three related landmarks in piano literature that puts Grosvenor’s versatility on full display. Grosvenor explores the invisible link between Saint-Saëns’ rotund Gallicism, jazz’s influence on Ravel (who composed the concerto right after his visit to the United States, where he met Gershwin) and the first version of the Rhapsody that Ferde Gofré arranged in 1924.
As encores of sorts, Grosvenor accompanies the three major pieces with three brief, intimate, magical and memorable solos: Leopold Godowsky’s transcription for piano of The Swan from the Carnival of the Animals; a prelude that Ravel composed in 1913 for the students at the Paris Conservatoire; and Percy Grainger’s transcription of his friend Gershwin’s Love Walked In.
Grosvenor’s youthful renditions evince a welcome touch of the grand tradition, more sorely needed today than ever. The tradition is undeniably there, manifest in the pianist’s nuances, elegance, daring, precision and eloquence, along with formidable technique. (And here you have to mention his admired models: Alfred Cortot, Ignaz Friedman, Benno Moiseiwitsch and Wilhelm Kempff.) Saint-Saëns’ kaleidoscopic concerto – of which Zigmunt Stojowski said, “It starts like Bach and ends like Offenbach” – gets an appropriately monumental rendering, one that even in the pauses exudes elegance and charm on a par with the best recorded performances, as does the dizzying final presto.
The same may be said of Grosvenor’s distinctive performance of the Ravel, in which he moves us with the simple incandescence of the cantabile of the second movement, like a pensive dandy caught in the daring urban excitement of the movements that frame it. Grosvenor negotiates all with amazing skill, supported by an orchestra that is alternately vibrant and ethereal.
The jazz band version of Rhapsody in Blue - premiered by Gershwin and Paul Whiteman’s orchestra – is more intimate, lively and rhythmically jarring than the usual one. Grosvenor makes good use of it, changing like a chameleon at every turn. The inclusion of a banjo and a clarinet that snakes around until it takes the breath away completes a noble performance that bears a certain nostalgic British touch. This is not at all contradictory; you just have to listen to notice the alchemy between conductor and pianist, as if both dreamed of the frenzy of America upon finally glimpsing it from the deck of an imaginary ship.
Grosvenor’s countryman James Judd conducts the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and does a splendid job, responding impeccably to each work with just the right style, vigor, subtlety and spontaneity required of a great orchestra. Another major contribution is the crystal-clear take, in which orchestra and soloist were ideally integrated.
In this era of recorded performances so immaculate they seem stripped bare of any shred of personality, the emergence of a performer with his own ideas and sound, in whom rigorous nobility joins youthful imagination, should be hailed as the confirmation of a great discovery. This is a recording in which masterful musical jugglers play with the three colors – the very same ones – of the two flags, inviting listeners to enjoy the coincidences. (RHAPSODY IN BLUE, GROSVENOR, RLPO, JUDD, DECCA, 478 3527)
Benjamin Grosvenor in recital: Feb 19 at University of Miami’s Gusman Hall; part of Friends of Chamber Music series in a program featuring Bach, Beethoven, Scriabin, Chopin and Strauss; www.miamichambermusic.org or 305-372-2975