CD Review: Benjamin Grosvenor’s “Rhapsody In Blue”

The celebrated British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor has released the second CD in his much-publicized contract with Decca. After last year’s critically lauded solo disc featuring compositions by Chopin, Liszt, and Ravel, his new release focuses on works for piano and orchestra, giving listeners at home an opportunity to hear Grosvenor performing with an instrumental ensemble, in this case the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic conducted by James Judd.

The choice of works and presentation of the disc as a whole is an unusual one: Saint-Säens’ Second Piano Concerto, Ravel’s G Major Concerto, and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, each followed by a solo ‘encore’ by the respective composers. The Ravel is an interesting bridge between the two works – he was French like Saint-Säens and his Concerto includes jazzy elements at times similar to Gershwin – but as an overall flow it is not the kind of programming that would necessarily encourage all-at-once listening, nor is a quieter solo composition after each larger concerted work ideal on the ear, with their different sound levels having one reaching for the volume control.

Personally, I’d have loved to hear the Saint-Säens with the Liszt Second that Grosvenor performed so magnificently at last year’s Proms, as well as with the Schumann Concerto (I’ve heard a stellar broadcast performance that was astonishingly mature). Whatever the reason for the repertoire choices, entitling the disc ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ when the Gershwin is the shortest concerted work featured seems a bit misguided, since all of the works here are equally worth hearing. However, when presented with what are profound and dazzling interpretations of great music, such objections and considerations are soon overlooked.

Grosvenor’s style, as I commented when reviewing his solo disc last year, blends an unusual degree of refinement and precision with old-school impulsiveness and ‘edge’. Regardless of the work he is performing, his sound is beautifully polished and refined, even at its loudest never becoming hard (the promotional videos filmed during sessions give the impression of brittleness, no doubt due to the mic’ing on the video cameras), and his phrasing is elegantly crafted, always with a sense of line and forward momentum.

The Saint-Säens is newer in Grosvenor’s repertoire – it seems hardly coincidental that the CD was released the same week that he performed the work at the Proms (surely a sign of Decca’s marketing machine at work). If this is a concerto that he hasn’t played as often as the Ravel (which he has performed since age 11), Grosvenor has clearly given his interpretation much thought and consideration – not that his playing seems to lack spontaneity or impetuousness. If midway through the first movement he opts for some stronger accents than I might have liked, the playing is never less than musical or effective. The first-movement cadenza is remarkable for its poetic phrasing, brought about in part by masterful pedalling and magnificent tone production. In the second movement, Grosvenor achieves great buoyancy while maintaining clear voicing and sparkling tone, while the finale features tremendous drive and the sense of risk-taking despite the phrasing never being uneven and tone never being harsh. Truly thrilling playing.

Ravel’s brilliant Concerto in G (1932) receives here one of its finest recorded interpretations. Grosvenor is the only pianist other than the legendary Michelangeli who I have heard create the uncanny effect of somehow enunciating the trills in the first movement such that one appears to hear notes between the semitones, like a zither or musical saw. He navigates through the first movement’s lyrical and virtuosic passages with a seamlessness that is stunning. The sense of flow in the second movement is impressive, with long lines and unobtrusive articulation, and the rapidly paced third movement poses no technical or musical challenge for Grosvenor as he brings the concerto to an exciting close.

For the disc’s title work Rhapsody in Blue, Grosvenor and members of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic – who provide admirable support throughout the disc but especially here – use the original 1924 orchestration by Gershwin’s colleague Ferde Grofé (which can be heard in the composer’s own abridged recording made the same year). The atmosphere in this more compact version is even more free-wheeling than usual, and here Grosvenor demonstrates that he is a master of whatever work he chooses to perform: an extraordinarily sensitive and refined an artist in ‘serious’ repertoire, he brings a jazzier, more popular work like this to life without lowering his musical or pianistic standards. Grosvenor unaffectedly fuses the work’s unique combination of jazzy and classical elements, with infectious vitality in his rhythmic drive, incredibly suave sensuality in lyrical passages, and crisply articulated passages flawlessly contrasted with fluidly phrased melodic lines. The measures leading into the famous secondary theme near the 9:30-mark may be the silkiest, most beguiling on record, and the subsequent rapid-fire repeated notes are technically brilliant while retaining purity of tone. This performance without a doubt ranks among the all-time greats.

The solo ‘encores’ presented between the major works are no less impressive. Godowsky’s arrangement of Saint-Säens’ The Swan is a perfect showpiece for Grosvenor, whose transcendent technique and Romantic sensibility enable him to bring out the transcription’s full potential: a primary melodic line that soars above the accompanying tracery, melting harmonies beautifully layered yet audible, timing wonderfully pliant and expansive. Ravel’s rarely-played Prelude in A Minor receives an exquisite reading that finds the composer’s experimental harmonies beautifully highlighted through Grosvenor’s delicate phrasing. The final solo, Gershwin’s Love Walked In, is one this young pianist has played for years. The trills, the balance of harmonies, and the incredibly supple phrasing are a marvel and provide a gorgeous closing to Grosvenor’s latest offering.

In short, this disc features performances as glorious as one could hope for. There is no doubt that the CD will be showered with justly-deserved praise, and hopefully sales will encourage the decision makers at Decca to record Grosvenor even more frequently, as one disc a year isn’t nearly enough for an artist of this calibre.

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 My review of his first Decca album is here

A Bold Debut Disc

Benjamin Grosvenor’s highly anticipated first CD on Decca is issued in the UK on Monday July 11. The young pianist, who turned 19 a few days before the release, continues to play with the brilliant technical facility and musical maturity that captured attention when he won the Piano section of the BBC Young Musician Award at age 11 in 2004.

With only one previous CD, ‘This and That’ – a compilation that was not widely distributed (it was released on the B&W Online Music Club before being reissued on Grosvenor’s own label Galton Productions) – Grosvenor now has the potential to reach the kind of audience that this level of artistry warrants thanks to his exclusive contract with Decca. If this current disc is anything to go by, there will be some great performances coming our way. Decca’s promo video for the album, with some interesting statements from the pianist and clips of his playing (it is a bit unfortunate that they show the end of Scarbo as opposed to another section), shows the label’s great interest in promoting the first British pianist to sign to the label since Moura Lympany and Clifford Curzon.

The current program bridges Chopin and Ravel via Liszt – brilliant programming, as Liszt was a true link between the other two composers of groundbreaking piano music. Grosvenor delivers Chopin’s Four Scherzi in non-sequential order and interspersed with Nocturnes (the kind of programming Lipatti would do). Two Chopin songs arranged by Liszt lead into a seldom-played Liszt work, En Reve, before Ravel’s legendary oeuvre Gaspard de la Nuit closes the program.

Grosvenor is a pianist who grasps the full spectrum of Romantic sensibilities: the music from this era is not all moonlit dreams and fields of flowers, and as some recordings by some of the legendary pianists of the 19th century demonstrate, there are darker undertones in the music of Chopin and Liszt. Grosvenor does not shy away from nor inappropriately highlight any of these qualities. Melodic lines are clearly shaped, harmonic shifts are attended to with care, tonal quality is never ignored: he can play a grand fortissimo without breaking the tone, and clearly articulate a pianissimo where his hands barely seem to touch the keys yet his tone is still full. He will occasionally play with less pedal than is the norm, which is not only entirely appropriate but also in keeping with recorded evidence of the golden age pianists. Conventional listeners may be too dazzled by his virtuosity to notice such nuances, while others may be startled by his boldness, but this is of little importance: Grosvenor’s style is thoroughly musical and grounded in authentic Romantic tradition.

In the First of the Scherzi, he beautifully balances lyrical passages with a wilder approach to the runs that is nevertheless never less than sensitive, whereas one of the highlights of the Second is his voice-leading in the middle section, quite different from the norm, with rhythmic figurations complementing rather than being part of the primary melodic line. The glittering cascades in the Third are as dazzling as could be expected, with a warm glow and surrounding melodic subjects perfectly poised, and the runs in the Fourth are stunningly nuanced with marvelous pedal control, while the middle section features some masterful highlighting of inner voices.

In the three Nocturnes he presents, Grosvenor avoids lapsing into the sentimentality that is part of the artistic downfall of so many artists his age. The 95-year-old Hungarian pianist Livia Rev recently stated that so many young musicians try to communicate emotions that they haven’t felt yet and we can sense it right away. This is not the case here, and it is not just the technical side of Grosvenor’s performances that is arresting but its mature emotional content: there is an emotional breadth that can be breathtaking. His timing is impeccable, his phrasing architecturally balanced, his dynamic range bolder than the average seasoned pianist.

The three offerings by Liszt – arrangements of two Chopin songs and his own En Reve – give Grosvenor more opportunities to demonstrate how virtuosity and musicality need not be antithetical to one another. The Maiden’s Wish is particularly captivating, with extra runs that are fully in keeping with the Romantic tradition of pianism of which Grosvenor seems to be a proponent.

Gaspard is not only a supremely challenging work for the hands, but conceptually it is frequently misunderstood. While many conservatory students older than Grosvenor will choose the work as a showpiece, he enters deeply into the essence of the work and delivers magnificently. Ondine shimmers seductively and Le Gibet is eerily frightening with its sinisterly voiced chords, but Scarbo is where Grosvenor’s individuality shines through most. I must confess that my first impression was less than enthusiastic – I was startled by the breakneck speed and seemingly inconsistent phrasing – but as I listened again, I sensed that the pianist was tuning more into the chaotic, wild nature of the creature depicted in the poem that inspired the work than using the work as an opportunity to show off his technical prowess. The sudden surges and shifts are more frightening than in any version I’ve heard, and yet there is beauty and attention in the tone, phrasing, and nuances that are evidence that Grosvenor’s conception is hardly as haphazard as the quixotic music and random outbursts might lead one to conclude. This, said one pianist for whom I played the recording, is a reading that is individual without being self-absorbed or going against the composer’s intentions.

The playing on this disc is some of the best you will hear of these works and bears repeated listening – indeed, it demands it. It is the kind of playing that makes it difficult to multi-task, so magnetic is its pull. If Grosvenor continues to produce CDs of this calibre, he will not only be expressing his uniquely formed talents, he will be doing a great service to the art of music and the memory of the composers who sought to communicate their message.

This CD is currently available only in the UK and can be ordered on Amazon here