Catching Up with Benjamin Grosvenor

British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor has been in the spotlight for over half of his lifetime, having won the BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2004 at the age of 10. He was already demonstrating profound maturity in his interpretations and command of the piano at that young age, and Grosvenor has continued to develop over the years. The first British pianist in 40 years to be signed to the Decca label, Grosvenor has now released four albums and continues to tour worldwide with solo recitals, chamber music collaborations, and concerto appearances. I’ve followed the pianist’s career with special interest, taking in both New York and Vancouver concerts in his 2017 North American Tour, having interviewed the pianist previously and having been commissioned to write the liner notes for Grosvenor’s third Decca CD (‘Dances’). This new interview brings us up to date on the artist’s current thoughts and preoccupations, and his recollection of his experiences growing up with so much acclaim. Benjamin Grosvenor has now made three Vancouver appearances with the Vancouver Recital Society; his debut concert was April 2013.

This interview first appeared on the Vancouver Classical Music website

Benjamin Grosvenor by Patrick Allen/Opera Omnia

Benjamin Grosvenor by Patrick Allen/Opera Omnia

I HAD THE PLEASURE OF INTERVIEWING YOU IN 2011, WHEN YOU HAD JUST TURNED 19 AND WERE ABOUT TO GIVE YOUR MUCH-ANTICIPATED OPENING CONCERT AT THE PROMS. YOU MUST HAVE GONE THROUGH A LOT BOTH PERSONALLY AND PROFESSIONALLY IN THE LAST 6 YEARS.

Yes, quite a lot has happened in that time, from completing my studies at the Royal Academy of Music to taking on things like the vexing responsibilities of home ownership. Professionally, I have had so many rewarding musical experiences and partnerships and I have learned a great deal from each one. I have also undertaken a lot of new repertoire. I’m sure that certain aspects of my musicianship have developed as a consequence although it is difficult for me to tell you the specifics of this process.

MUCH WAS MADE OF THAT PROMS DEBUT AND THE FACT THAT YOU WERE THE FIRST BRITISH PIANIST SIGNED TO DECCA FOR SEVERAL DECADES. HOW HAVE YOU ADAPTED TO BEING A HIGH-PROFILE ARTIST IN YOUR NATIVE COUNTRY? IS YOUR EXPERIENCE DIFFERENT AT HOME THAN ABROAD?

In some ways, the nature of the coverage I receive in the UK can be a little trickier to deal with: the fact that I’ve been receiving media attention since I was 11 can mean that local journalists and some in the music business approach me based upon things that I did many years ago. Of course, I’m fortunate to be receiving attention at all, yet I do think it is refreshing to perform in countries where there are no baked-in preconceptions about having been perceived as a prodigy playing a certain range of works. The two things I most appreciate about playing ‘at home’ are, first, not having to go through the stresses of airports and delayed flights to get to a venue and, second, the opportunity to play with orchestras and conductors with whom I’ve established a musical bond over time. For example, I enjoyed greatly a tour I made last autumn with the Hallé Orchestra and Sir Mark Elder playing the two Liszt Concerti. I learned a lot from that collaboration and Elder is an ideal, generous partner.

Grosvenor in performance Photo by Juan Diego Castillo, Teatro Mayor Bogotá

Grosvenor in performance
Photo by Juan Diego Castillo, Teatro Mayor Bogotá

YOU HAVE NOW GIVEN A GREAT MANY CONCERTS ALL OVER THE WORLD. DO YOU THINK YOUR WAY OF PREPARING FOR A PERFORMANCE HAS CHANGED?

In terms of musical approach, this will sound horribly boring, but I don’t plan the process of preparation differently now than I did ten years ago. I simply try to be as well prepared as I can. The major difference is that achieving this goal now takes considerably more coordination because I’m playing a lot more concerts and repertoire. Specifically, each season will usually involve 3-5 concerti plus one and a half recital programs plus chamber repertoire, as well as time for preparing new solo and concerted works. I’ve had to learn to try to use practice and preparation time as efficiently as possible.

YOUR TRAVELS HAVE OBVIOUSLY BROUGHT YOU TO A LOT OF DIFFERENT PIANOS AND HALLS. WHAT DO YOU HAVE TO DO TO ADAPT TO EACH INSTRUMENT AND PERFORMANCE SETTING?

I was always fussy about pianos and this has only grown with the years. I do have a particular sense of the texture and colour of sound that I’m seeking in each passage, as well as the overall dynamic range that I think is right for the acoustic. Of course, changes to tone can be improvised depending upon the character of a given instrument, and I might actually discover things through being forced to make adjustments on what seems to be, at first, an unfriendly instrument. But the real problem comes with those pianos that simply don’t have much capacity for colour or a grotty action. Experiences like this come with the trade, and I’ve had years of dealing with such situations. I’d like to think that I’m getting better at soldiering on through, but it doesn’t get any less frustrating.

HOW DO YOU GO ABOUT SELECTING YOUR REPERTOIRE? ARE THERE SOME WORKS THAT YOU ARE EXPLORING NOW THAT YOU HAD WAITED ON EARLIER?

I’ve always enjoyed eclectic programmes and, within that overall approach, try to set myself some challenges. This season, for example, I’m playing the Berg Sonata. I’d loved Berg’s music since playing some of the Seven Early Songs in a chamber concert when I was a student. I’ve read through his violin concerto a couple of times with a friend who was performing it but, apart from these two experiences, I haven’t played any music from the Second Viennese School. I had felt rather little affinity with Prokofiev until about two years ago, but now I’d like to play one of the concerti and one or more of the sonatas in a future season.

Photo: Decca/Sophie Wright

Photo: Decca/Sophie Wright

EARLIER GENERATIONS OF ARTISTS PRIOR TO THE DEVELOPMENT OF RECORDING TECHNOLOGY LEARNED THE MUSIC FROM THE SCORE FIRST. HOW DO YOU APPROACH NEW WORKS THAT YOU WERE FIRST EXPOSED TO THROUGH RECORDINGS OR CONCERTS?

It can be awkward if one has a particular performance of a work already imprinted in the mind, but there is really no way to prepare a new piece other than via first principles, which means beginning with the score, and also comparing different editions and Urtexts. In fact, when something like this has happened with me, I have usually found that a detailed study of the score prompts possibilities different from those of, say, a ‘favourite’ recording. And that launches me on thinking about the piece in my own way.

WE HAVE PREVIOUSLY DISCUSSED THE VALUE OF STUDYING HISTORICAL RECORDINGS BY THE GREAT PIANISTS OF THE PAST. DO YOU THINK PIANISTS TODAY STILL HAVE A LOT TO LEARN FROM THEM?

I do feel that there is a great deal to learn from historical recordings. And pianists should listen not only to recordings of historical pianists, but to conductors, violinists, singers… There are a great many current artists who I admire too, but I wish I currently had more time for listening in general – hearing recordings and, particularly, attending concerts – but generally I’m so busy now that listening time is limited.

HomagesYOU RECENTLY RELEASED YOUR FOURTH ALBUM ON DECCA – A SOLO DISC THEMED AROUND ‘HOMAGES’ – AND WE ARE ALL ANTICIPATING NEW RECORDINGS FROM YOU. CAN YOU GIVE US A HINT OF WHAT’S NEXT?

I prefer not to make a recording until I’ve reached a robust level of confidence in the repertoire, which will nearly always mean plenty of concert outings first. I’m currently in discussions with Decca about the next disc. They’d like a concerto recording, but that does involve a lot of coordination with venue, orchestra, and conductor. Unfortunately, I can’t give any further details simply because there aren’t any at this point!

IN CLOSING, WHAT WOULD YOU REGARD AS THE MOST UNIQUE (STRANGE, HUMOROUS, WONDERFUL) PERFORMING EXPERIENCE YOU HAVE HAD THUS FAR?

I think that often the more entertaining, or at least unusual, stories are when things don’t quite go as smoothly as planned. I can think of a few such stories – from fainting double bassists to tactless Sicilian photographers – but there is not one that is quite golden enough to set down into words yet. I have to say that some of the most wonderful performing experiences have been at the BBC Proms. The atmosphere there is really something so unique. I’ve recently had fantastic experiences in parts of the world that I had not previously visited. I have fond memories of visiting Brazil when I was thirteen and I was able to undertake a longer tour of South America this year. I was struck by the warmth of the audiences and the charming people I met there.

© Mark Ainley 2017

Photo Credits: Patrick Allen, Juan Diego Castillo, Sophie Wright

Living the Classical Life Interview

In July 2014, I was interviewed by Zsolt Bognar as part of his Living the Classical Life series of interviews. Although generally until that point the performers had tended to be well-known pianists such as Stephen Hough, Yuja Wang, and Daniil Trifonov, the series has expanded to include non-piano instrumentalists (such as violinist Joshua Bell) and other non-performer types… which is where I fit in.

Bognar had for several years been a subscriber to my Piano Files page on Facebook and as an active pianist interested in the role of the interpreter was interested in my thoughts about performance practice, and so he extended the invitation to be part of the series. I needed to see a few piano-related folks in New York last year and so we timed my visit to coincide with when he would be in the Hamptons as part of the terrific program Pianofest in the Hamptons, run by Paul Schenly.

Our original conversation extended to about 60 minutes, covering a few parenthetical topics (such as my practice as a Contemporary Feng Shui Consultant and what connections I saw between that and my musical work), but in the interest of focusing on the essentials, it was edited down to its current 26-minute length. We discuss how I first became interested in historical piano recordings, why we should listen to them, and the distinctive qualities of fine piano playing.

Here’s the episode:

And some of the recordings we mention therein…

Joseph Villa’s brilliant reading of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, transcribed by Liszt, which I use as an example for what is possible for a single musician to accomplish at a single instrument:

Josef Hofmann’s otherworldly interpretation of Chopin’s First Ballade, which I refer to in terms of playing that has to be heard to be believed, playing so different from what it is that we could normally expect to hear:

An example of Alfred Cortot’s glorious pianism – we discussed a lot of his playing (not just his infamous wrong notes), including his incredible tonal colours, exquisite colours, and amazing timing:

Dinu Lipatti’s legendary reading of Ravel’s Alborada del Gracioso… with at least one textual change that actually creates a more idiomatic effect than the pedal marking Ravel had notated:

And these are just a few of the pianists mentioned therein. I hope viewers will be inspired to examine the playing of these great pianists, as well as others mentioned (Ignaz Friedman, Benno Moiseiwitsch, Marcelle Meyer…)! There are so many amazing artists of the past to explore… hence this website!

Benjamin Grosvenor Interview

Benjamin Grosvenor photographed by Sussie Ahlburg

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.)

Benjamin’s website is http://benjamingrosvenor.co.uk/ My review of his first Decca album is here