Benjamin Grosvenor, piano
January 26 2022
Nottingham Trent University Hall
Review: William Ruff
Benjamin Grosvenor: unbuttoned exuberance, rapt reflection…and every motion in between
Until last Saturday I had never before heard the whole of Schumann’s Kreisleriana played live in concert. In my last review I wrote of what an extraordinary experience it was to hear Stephen Hough play it – and I thought that would be it for the foreseeable future. But I was wrong. Only four days later another remarkable British pianist, Benjamin Grosvenor, was in Nottingham and he gave another astonishing performance of the same work. Yes, the old bus joke does spring to mind: you wait for years…and then two turn up together.
I wish I could write lots of wise words comparing the approaches of two master pianists to the same piece. However, I have to admit that the two experiences were so different that any comparisons would be meaningless. At the Hough recital I was sitting nine rows back, whereas for Grosvenor my seat was not only in the front row, only a few feet away from the keyboard. In fact, I would have had to be sharing the piano stool with him to be any nearer. This meant I was able to see every move he made and, whilst the sheer volume of sound was a tad overwhelming at times, being so up-close-and-personal certainly made for an immersive experience. The individual movements which make up Kreisleriana veer from one emotional extreme, reflecting the two very different sides to Schumann’s character, given by him two different names: Florestan and Eusebius. Benjamin Grosvenor captured each extreme with total conviction, his seemingly effortless virtuosity allowing him to inhabit its worlds of unbuttoned exuberance, rapt reflection…and just about every emotional state in between.
After this came the first book of Iberia by the Spanish composer Isaac Albéniz. It is music of great ingenuity and intricacy and requires great sensitivity to tonal colour and atmosphere, each movement a miniature tone poem embodying the spiritual essence of the composer’s homeland, its songs, dances, landscapes, religious festivals and vibrant colours. It has an extreme dynamic range with complex rhythms and highly elaborate textures incorporating difficult leaps and dangerous chords. Benjamin Grosvenor was clearly in his element throughout.
He finished his recital with Ravel’s La Valse, best known as one of his most colourful orchestral showpieces and managing to celebrate the Viennese waltz at the same time as offer a vision of Europe teetering on the edge of World War One. The piano version is rarely performed because of its mind-boggling difficulty. To hear it in the intimate space of the NTU Hall was simply astonishing, not only for its fistfuls of notes flung to the audience but also its huge tsunamis of sound. Benjamin Grosvenor didn’t hold back. This was music you could feel vibrating your ribs and provoked concern for the safety of both pianist and piano. It was an exhilarating way to end.
Benjamin Grosvenor, piano