The music industry is not an easy place for a young pianist like Benjamin Grosvenor. Young talents are often sold as the flavour of the month, receiving simultaneously undue praise for their talents because of their age and the disdain of those who assume that they must be just another flash in the pan. The life of a concert artist can be so harrowing that many performers give up when their artistry is of the level that deserves international acclaim, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy for the ‘flash in the pan syndrome’.
Grosvenor seems to be managing very well, and he demonstrates a modesty and humility that belie his age and musical abilities. The 19-year-old British pianist has never entered an international piano competition, and will never have to. After becoming the youngest ever winner of the Keyboard division of the BBC Young Musician Competition in 2004 at the age of 11, where his performances demonstrated a level of musical maturity that was as inspiring as his technical facility, he has performed internationally, making his Carnegie Hall debut aged 13 and playing to huge acclaim on a tour of Germany when 17. Yet he has kept his total number of concerts each year modest – rejecting the ‘dash for cash’ prodigy circuit – in order to be able to continue his studies with Christopher Elton at London’s Royal Academy of Music. At home in England he is now making a big splash: he is the youngest soloist ever to play the opening concert at the annual Proms concerts series, and he is the first British pianist signed to the Decca label since Clifford Curzon and Moura Lympany over a half century ago.
As Grosvenor has been interviewed more by the mainstream media rather than by in-depth musically-focused publications (how many more times will he need to answer what it feels like to play a concerto with a major orchestra?), and because he seemed to relish the opportunity to answer more probing musical questions, I am publishing our interview verbatim, without any editing (apart from a semi-colon or two).
I started by asking him about the nature of competition, since by all accounts he seems to be incredibly modest yet in one interview he stated that he felt very competitive when he first started playing.
It strikes me as ironic that you have stated that you didn’t take piano seriously until your friends were playing, at which point you didn’t want them to be better than you – and yet you have not performed in competitions. What fuels your piano playing today? And what are your thoughts about the competitive nature of the piano industry?
At that very young age ( about 8 ) I think I was still suffering from those competitive urges of young childhood – to be the best amongst my peers at something. I entered the BBC Young Musician Competition when I was 11 and won the Keyboard section. Perhaps ideally 11 is the last age at which anyone should enter a competition, since you haven’t by that time developed the self consciousness and nervous reaction to that unnatural environment that skews playing! I was glad for the exposure of the BBC event, as it meant that I didn’t have to think about entering future competitions, even though sometimes I was urged to do so. The competitive nature of the industry is irksome as there should be no element of gladiatorial combat in playing Bach or Mozart or Chopin… On the one hand, it’s natural that a listener compares and might say, for example, “Horowitz’s Scriabin is more neurotic than Richter’s” – we all do that and it can help clarify our views – but I feel very uncomfortable when I read comments that seem to reduce what we do to a form of sport. In the past, competitions themselves have helped to bring a number of great pianists to the fore. At this time, I do worry that perhaps they have become a kind of worldwide industry, and so many students at conservatories hone their playing to the competition ‘circuit’ that they expect to join shortly, and through which they hope to earn notice and a career. Musical aims can be subordinated along the way, which is sad. But that’s not to say that competitions nowadays cannot bring a major talent to the fore. My concern is rather their dominance in the mindset of young musicians, and the distorting effect this can have on playing.
I play works about which I feel a strong conviction, or those that I hope will expand my musicianship (ideally both!). I’m fueled by the desire to play these as best I can… Sorry that this is a rather dreary answer to that part of your question!
Do you think that you have a vision of the works you play that is consistent from one performance to the next, or do you vary your interpretations and nuances from one concert to the next?
I usually have a kind of fixed map, which I only change if something doesn’t seem to be working or if I come up with a better approach to a certain part. Of course, at fine detail level, this ‘map’ is subject to the tweaks that necessarily occur (often spontaneously) as a result of different pianos and acoustics – adjustments to tempi, voicing, dynamics etc. Not to mention my mood on that day. My overall concept of a piece can change, but typically when I return to a piece after a period of time not playing it.
What do you think are the most important qualities in a pianist’s playing? And which ones tend to be less valued in the playing of today compared to the artists of yesteryear?
We have to keep in mind always that our medium is sound, so projecting a performance to an audience rests on controlling and conjuring with sound, not ‘playing notes’ per se. Perhaps this is a quality that is sometimes now lacking relative to the artists of yesteryear (with exceptions in both directions, of course); also the sense of a pianist having their own sound. Naturally, a Bach Partita should command a different range of tone, touch and colour than a Liszt Petrach Sonnet, but if one listens to Lipatti’s recording of the 1st Partita and the Petrarch Sonnet 104, say, one hears those different ranges, yet there is an element of the sound – of ‘voice’ – that is indelibly Lipatti. Not that individuality of sound or interpretation should be an end in itself (another false goal) but, when it’s the innate result of nature and nurture, as with Lipatti, the results can be moving and inspiring.
Do you have an interest in the pianists of the past? Who are your favourites, and what qualities do you admire in their playing?
While I have great respect for many pianists now playing, I do have a pronounced interest in pianists of the past, both for the absolute merits of their performances and because one is exposed to potentially important musical/expressive and pianistic tools that may have disappeared partially from the modern lexicon. Of course, you cannot give ‘sepia tinted’ performances, as if seeking to re-invent a bygone era (also bearing in mind the quip about a ‘tradition’ being set when a bad habit is repeated!) – but to ignore the recorded legacy of immensely talented musicians who worked with some of the great composers (and painters and writers) and who also, in some cases, studied with Liszt or the significant pupils of Chopin, say, would be to miss out on a rich part of our artistic history.
Notwithstanding my earlier comments about the insidious nature of sweeping comparisons and rankings (!), I answered Cortot, Lipatti and Horowitz when a magazine asked me last year to name my three ‘top’ pianists. Making this choice of a ‘top three’ (a silly notion, I realise) was impossible last year and would be even more impossible now, I should add…it would be better to say that I cited these three as being amongst my favourites. But to explain briefly my reasoning at the time, Cortot was perhaps an ultimate expressive artist, yet also a brilliant mind. If there was a word that meant ‘seductive’ but in a soulful or spiritual rather than a sexual way, I’d use it to describe his playing! Lipatti remains an ideal of musical and technical perfection. Horowitz’s technique is discussed avidly, and what he could accomplish with his unique approach to the keyboard was incredible, but it’s as a musician of often miraculous imagination that he most engrosses me. His playing of larger scale works may not always hold together (at least in conventional terms) but he can make a Chopin mazurka or Scarlatti sonata almost unbearably touching.
Although in most cases I’ve done little more than scratch the surface (I wish I had more time for listening), I’ve also listened with great interest to the playing of Schnabel, Rachmaninov, Kempff, Rubinstein, Moiseiwitsch, Friedmann, Hofmann, Rosenthal, Cherkassky, Cziffra, Michelangeli, Richter, Arrau, Gilels, Sofronitsky… I should also add, I suppose, that it’s not that I react ‘positively’ to all of the performances of these pianists that I’ve heard, but one can learn from a great artist even when you happen to react against a particular interpretation!
What other instruments and musicians do you listen to? What qualities do you admire in their playing? Are there transferable qualities that you strive for in your performances? (For example, is there something in Furtwangler’s conducting that would inspire your piano playing?)
A few years ago I did some comparative listening in the Beethoven 9th and Schubert 9th, listening to a number of Furtwängler’s recorded performances of both, amongst others. His readings made a greater impression on me than those of any of the other conductors I heard – the ‘organic’ nature of his conceptions and plasticity of phrasing and pulse, as well as the sound and intensity he drew from (in particular) the string sections. That plasticity of phrasing and pulse – whilst building a greater whole, which might seem counter-intuitive at first – is something that instrumentalists can certainly learn from. I hope over the years to make my way through every one of Furtwängler’s recordings (something to keep my MP3 player busy!) Recently I’ve also become interested in the recordings of Thibaud and Kreisler – for their phrasing and tone and also their use of portamento. As pianists we don’t have any direct recourse to portamento, of course, but it’s possible at times to intimate this through slightly de-syncronising the hands. Though one has to be mindful that this should never sound like a ‘device’ – it always has to serve a musical purpose and be part of natural expression (and in appropriate repertoire). But used with taste it can serve to intensify or even to ‘soften’ a particular phrase.
How can musicians today learn from recordings without either copying them outright or creating disjointed performances of copied nuances from various interpreters? How do you balance listening to others with your own ideas?
I think it’s a question of drawing inspiration from other musicians, at the same time where relevant learning additional expressive and technical possibilities. If this is done over a period of time (and also as a way of getting to know better the wider repertoire, of course) and the lessons ‘imbibed’, I think there shouldn’t be too much risk of copying a particular detail in another performance. I also have ‘black-out’ periods in preparation when I won’t listen to recordings of that work. And it hardly needs stating that the starting point for learning a new work is the score.
A few months ago, I listened to a recording of my Wigmore debut aged 12, and thought it interesting that, though I wasn’t familiar with any historical recordings at the time, there are elements in some of those performances that are perhaps quite ‘old school’, and some individual details that I wasn’t taught, nor had I heard them in recordings.
What repertoire have you not yet explored that you would like to? Is there a particular era to which you are drawn? Do you have a favourite composer?
So far I’ve played relatively little Baroque repertoire in public, aside from some Scarlatti sonatas, but next season I’m programming the Bach 4th Partita. Although I’ve played a number of Mozart concertos and sonatas, I’ve played less from the Classical than the Romantic era, simply because I found myself so naturally drawn to the latter from an early age. I’m always keen to play more chamber music. Last year I made my first public forays into Brahms and Schubert via chamber works and greatly enjoyed the experience – I was fortunate to be working with talented, seasoned musicians who could help me find my way in speaking these new tongues, as it were!
Do you prefer playing in concert or recording? Or are there different aspects to each that you enjoy?
Definitely playing live! Recording can be exasperating – on the one hand I’ll be tweaking fine details as the piano’s voicing changes or trying to find better possibilities in that particular studio acoustic yet, on the other, my perfectionist instincts make me want to produce the best I can at that particular moment. But then comes another moment..! And what happens many moments later when I compare two takes of the same piece..?!
What other activities do you enjoy in your spare time (if you have any spare time…)?
I could definitely do with 48-hour days at the moment, particularly with the Liszt 2 and Britten concertos to prepare for the Proms, both of which I’m learning from scratch! But I’ve always read a lot and, in recent years, have become quite a fitness fanatic, running, and swimming when I can (and when I have the motivation.)