Grosvenor Pairings Probe Connections That Prick The Ear

Benjamin Grosvenor recital mix for the current season includes pairings of Ravel and Berg, Brahms and Brett Dean.
(Photo by Dale Preston)
By Daniel Hathaway

OBERLIN — At 25, British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor had only a few years on the conservatory students in the audience who witnessed his commanding recital on the Oberlin Artist Recital Series in Finney Chapel on Nov. 12. That transcendent experience must have sent many of them directly back to their practice rooms with a renewed commitment to perfecting their craft.

Grosvenor’s insightful program included Borwick-Copeland’s arrangement of Debussy’s
‘Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune.'(Patrick Allen, Opera Omnia)

Grosvenor is a deep thinker who assembled the recital program he’ll play a number of times this season with historical-stylistic contrasts in mind. In a post-recital Q&A, he noted that he put Alban Berg’s Sonata together with Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit  because they were both composed in 1908. Similarly, he wanted to contrast Brahms’ Four Pieces for Piano, Op. 119, written in 1893, with Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, completed a year later. The pianist decided to interleave the Brahms pieces with Brett Dean’s three-movement Hommage à Brahms, creating the seven-movement suite Dean had in mind. Grosvenor began the recital with “an amuse-bouche before a dark program,” J.S. Bach’s French Suite No. 5. His choices made beautiful sense both in continuity and contrast.

Hors d’oeuvre though it might have been, the Bach suite immediately displayed Grosvenor’s sensitivity to matters of touch and texture. In his transparent playing, the pianist caught the individual character of each dance movement with ease and intensity from Allemande to Gigue. Time nearly stopped during the ravishing Sarabande, only to be charmingly revived in the Gavotte, Bourée, and lurching Louré.

Getting deep under the skin of Brahms, Grosvenor got to the spiritual core of each of Op. 119’s  four pieces — three Intermezzos and a Rhapsodie. In the first Intermezzo, he took Brahms at his word (in a letter to Clara Schumann): “Every bar and every note must sound like a ritard, as if one wanted to suck melancholy out of each and every one, lustily and with pleasure out of these very dissonances!” The single notes of the arpeggiated triads that open the piece hung in the air, glistening like ice crystals.

In the E-minor Intermezzo, No. 2, Grosvenor carefully controlled crescendos and decrescendos, contrasting intensity and lyricism. In the C major piece, No. 3, he played elegantly with Brahms’ rhythmic ambiguities, and in the final Rhapsodie, brought the suite to a joyous conclusion, all the while asserting total control over the music. Grosvenor’s reserved body language gave no hint of the wide range of tone and color he was able to summon from the piano.

Composer Brett Dean: interleavings with Brahms that prick up the ear. (Bettina Stoess)

If you believe that the Brahms movements were intended to be played end to end, you might consider Dean’s pieces interruptions rather than extensions of Brahms’ ideas. But interleaved, they prick up the ear and focus the attention more sharply on the originals. Dean’s first and third pieces, “Angels’ Wings I and II,” are lyrical and atmospheric, while “Seaport Tavern Music,” the middle interpolation, brings matters soundly down to earth in an imaginary Hamburg venue where Brahms is supposed to have played piano in his salad days.

Faune co-arrangers Leonard Borwick and George Copeland jointly took on the impossible in re-purposing Debussy’s diaphanous orchestral reverie for an instrument that makes music by striking strings with hammers. Creating elegant arpeggios and chordal voicings that removed any hint of percussiveness from the score, Grosvenor expertly layered the music as though many musicians were at work.

Berg’s Op. 1 Sonata made a fine transition between Debussy and Ravel, cleansing the palate with music that hovers between Romantic lyricism and modern astringency. Even low passages came out lean, not murky.

The best of the afternoon’s countless fine moments came in Gaspard de la nuit, a notoriously difficult triptych whose technical traps distract many pianists from getting the music across. In “Ondine,” Grosvenor spun effortless, delicate filigree. In “Le Gibet,” he kept the inexorable tolling of the bell in the foreground, giving the movement the coherence it sometimes lacks. And the pianist played the toccata that is “Scarbo” with riveting rhythm, allowing the listener to perceive its subliminal architecture.

Grosvenor gave the enthusiastic audience an unprogrammed extra: Moritz Moszkowski’s Etude in A-flat, Op. 72, No. 11.

Grosvenor talked of his season’s focus with Oberlin Conservatory’s Robert Shannon.
(Dale Preston)

Oberlin Conservatory piano department faculty member Robert Shannon moderated a Q&A session after the recital that depended on queries from the audience rather than a script, so questions were all over the map. Some of the more interesting ones had to do with Grosvenor’s practice habits, his allegiance to the wishes of composers as written in their scores, pianists of the past whom he especially admires, and his advice to young pianists seeking to build a career.

The pianist noted that “five to six hours of practice a day should do it,” and that one doesn’t have to play all the time. Silence and contemplation are also valuable components of the practice routine, and just as if you were working at a desk in an office, taking a ten-minute break every fifty is important.

Grosvenor said that composers’ scores should be treated with the utmost respect, although there are exceptions: Rachmaninoff’s reversal of crescendos in the funeral march of Chopin’s B-flat minor Sonata was a brilliant interpretative move.

The young pianist admires the playing of many of his musical forebears, and said that we should all be grateful to have access to old recordings of their performances on YouTube.

And what was his advice to young pianists? “Play chamber music!”

Grosvenor played this same program at Union College in Schenectady on Nov. 5, on the Music Toronto series at the St. Lawrence Centre on Nov. 7, at the 92nd St. Y in New York on Nov. 15, at Duke University on Nov. 17, and at Spivey Hall in Clayton, Ga., on Nov. 19. He’ll bring the program back in the spring for appearances at the Wertheim Performing Arts Center in Miami on April 29, at The Gilmore in Kalamazoo, Mich., on May 2, and at the Horowitz Center’s Smith Theater in Columbia, Md., on May 5.

His forthcoming orchestral performances in the U.S. include the Boston Symphony with François-Xavier Roth (Jan. 4-8, Mozart’s Concerto No. 21), the Nashville Symphony with Christopher Seaman (Feb. 23-24, Beethoven No. 2), the Pittsburgh Symphony with Manfred Honeck (March 2-4, Beethoven No. 2), the New York Philharmonic with Esa-Pekka Salonen (April 4-6, Beethoven No. 3), and the Naples (Fla.) Philharmonic with Andrey Boreyko (April 12-15, Chopin No. 2).

Grosvenor will also take his own advice about playing chamber music, performing with New York Philharmonic musicians at the 92nd St. Y on April 10, and with Artis Naples in Florida on April 15. Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet is on both programs.

Daniel Hathaway is founder and editor of