benjamin grosvenor

Benjamin Grosvenor review: Playful brilliance

Portland Piano International recitalist indulges in serious play.

by JEFF WINSLOW

“Play the piano” is such a common phrase that concertgoers – and more to the point, pianists – often forget the joy and spontaneity that lives in the verb, or only experience its manipulative evil twin: “play the audience.” British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor has already achieved such mastery at age 22 that you know he spent thousands of hours practicing at an age when most kids play out in the sun, or these days in front of a video screen, instead. But all that work couldn’t knock the play out of him, as concertgoers were blessed to experience last Monday evening at Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall.

Benjamin Grosvenor. Photo: York Tillyer

Benjamin Grosvenor. Photo: York Tillyer

We heard it almost from the very first notes of Frederic Chopin’s first Ballade, when he added atmosphere to the declamatory intro by subtly delaying the release of pitches that define its harmony. It continued when he added a kind of Viennese waltz swing to the triple meter of the otherwise pensive main melody. Later he apparently couldn’t resist adding resonance to a few dramatic moments by adding extra bass an octave below what Chopin wrote. This last move didn’t really work – Chopin was as mindful of counterpoint as harmony and he likely would have frowned, at the very least, at extra bass that doesn’t form part of a countermelody – but there was no denying Grosvenor’s intimate engagement with the work, which made it seem to leap off the stage.

This was all the more remarkable given that he rarely swelled to full volume. One of his most telling details was another subtle one. Whenever that pensive melody returns, it’s intensified almost to the point of dread by the soft return of the triple meter on a single insistent pitch in the bass. Grosvenor wisely dropped the Viennese touch at such moments, but beyond that, he dared us to look into the dark corner with a sinister staccato delivery.

Such things never got beyond play, unlike some young virtuosos who impose outlandish interpretations as if in a contest of wills with the composer. In that most playful of Ballades, the A-flat major, it wasn’t hard to imagine we were hearing Chopin himself at the piano. Detail after detail was lovingly brought out, yet without sacrificing overall narrative feeling, and without any ostentatious fireworks, which the composer abhorred. In contrasting F major sections, I wished for even more playful exploration of complex harmony via pedaling, as hinted at by the countermelody Grosvenor brought out in the last one, but that I even considered such a possibility testifies to his extraordinary control and delicacy.

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Benjamin Grosvenor interview/review: Pianist’s poetic intensity

An interview with the British piano prodigy and review of his first Portland Piano International recital.

by JANA GRIFFIN

Editor’s note: Our crack team of ArtsWatch piano enthusiasts double-teamed 22-year-old piano prodigy Benjamin Grosvenor’s concerts for Portland Piano International last week at Portland State University. ArtsWatch’s Jana Griffin spoke to the rising British star, and her review of his Sunday recital follows their interview. ArtsWatch’s Jeff Winslow reviewed Grosvenor’s Monday recital for ArtsWatch, too.

 OAW: What makes a great pianist?

Benjamin Grosvenor: You get a sense that the great pianists have their own quality of sound. You can often tell it’s a particular pianist playing by listening to the rubato and the particular timing they use within passages. It’s tricky to describe, but for example, Jorge Bolet has this wonderfully burnished tone; it’s quite a thick sound at the piano, warm and rounded. but the way they choose the voicing and they also had a particular sound in their head when they came to the piano. You get a sense from some pianists that they have their own individual sound and this quality, along with timing and rubato, are issues that are incredibly personal and distinctive.

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