To the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Wednesday evening for Benjamin Grosvenor’s first recital there. Barely twenty years old, he’s already a media star due to his own exceptional abilities and canny management and marketing. What makes him stand out from his peers is his complete but unfashioable affinity with the repertoire and style of playing of the so-called ‘Golden Age of the Piano’ – a misleading but helpful label for the era when a group of the greatest pianists in history were active, among them Rachmaninov, Hofmann, Lhevinne, Rosenthal, Godowsky, Levitzki, Moisiewitsch, Friedman, Barere and the young Horowitz.
I had been sent over the past years many unofficial live recordings of Grosvenor by one of his friends and mentors, reviewed his first CD for Decca (after he became the youngest ever pianist to be signed up by the label – and the first British pianist for 60 years). So I knew all about his many strengths and few weaknesses. But Wednesday was the first time I’d had a chance to hear him live in person. It was one of the finest recitals I’d been to for many years. Why? Because the programme, with its theme loosely based on different dance forms, was a mix of the familiar and unfamiliar that exploited the full range of the instrument and Grosvenor’s particular gifts; because his quiet, thoughtful demeanour at the keyboard belied the incredible technical feats and risks he was bringing off; because each interpretation had the stamp of a distinctive musical personality – oh, and did I say he knows how to make the piano sing, and ping the quietest tones to the back of the (packed) hall?
He began with Bach’s D major Partita, superbly articulated and lucid, a substantial 30 minutes, followed by Chopin’s dramatic F sharp minor Polonaise (its opening pages the only time in the evening when the piano tone sounded a little rough – but then, with the Hall’s own Steinway apparently not in good shape, his choice of a Yamaha past its first flush of youth could not have helped: as a friend remarked afterwards, the piano was a bit ‘notey’). Before the interval we had Chopin’s Andante spianato and Grande polonaise brillante. The final pages showed what fabulous fingers and a warm heart Grosvenor has – and the ability to thrill with great musicianship.
After the interval we had some early Scriabin mazurkas, rarely programmed, and his even less familiar Valse in A flat. This was a revelation, a piece that really should be heard more often, and the 8 Valses poéticos of Granados that followed, quite unlike Goyescas and his better known works, imbued with a Poulencian wit and melancholy, well worth investigating. And then – one of the great virtuoso showpieces of the piano, once in the repertoire of many of the Golden Age players: Schultz-Evler’s Concert arabesques on themes from Johann Strauss 11’s ‘On the beautiful blue Danube’. Its filigree passagework and thundering octaves were thrillingly despatched to the manner born – and we responded enthusiastically…well, almost all of us. The woman next to me, who had been thumbing through the sizeable programme throughout the recital just sat there, a quite baffling reaction and, in any case, plain rude. The elderly man opposite who appeared to be having a heart attack in the midst of the Schulz-Evler (a tad distracting) and his wife with the nervous head twitch both, thankfully, left before the encores. There are always extra-musical elements at a recital to deal with.
Young Mr Grosvenor gave us a delicious rendering of Albéniz-Godowsky Tango, the most electrifying Gnomenreigen I have ever heard (Richter and Wild included) and rounded off with an old Cherkassky favourite, Morton Gould’s Boogie-Woogie Etude. It’s a shlepp in to the QEH from where I live. Recent recitals have made me more choosy about whether I go to a concert or not. I’d willingly do a 200 mile round trip to hear this pianist wherever he plays, whatever he plays.