British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor tends to attract hyperbolic headlines wherever he performs. After his New York debut in 2015, the Times’ David Allen dubbed him “Boy Lord of the Piano.”
Grosvenor’s Orange County debut on Wednesday at Segerstrom Concert Hall showed what all the fuss and fawning was about.
Now 24, Grosvenor may still look like a dewy teen not yet familiar with a razor, but he has been on piano lovers’ radar for well over a decade. He made his first splash when he won the keyboard category of the BBC Young Musicians of the Year competition in 2004.
Grosvenor brought a widely varied program to Costa Mesa for this Philharmonic Society concert: Schumann’s Arabesque, Op. 18; Mozart’s Sonata in B-flat major, K. 333; Beethoven’s Sonata in C-sharp minor, Op. 27, No. 2 (the “Moonlight”); Scriabin’s Sonata No. 2 in G-sharp minor, Op. 19; Book 1 from Granados’” Goyescas,” Op. 11; and Liszt’s Rhapsodie espagnole.
It’s a line-up that allowed Grosvenor to roll out all the weapons in his virtuosic arsenal, and he has quite a collection.
There’s technique aplenty, of course – that much was never in doubt. All of these works demand absolute mastery of bravura playing: machine-gun double octaves, whirlwind hand crossing and hair-raising rapid-note passages.
But Grosvenor offers something that most young piano soloists, including many we’ve seen this season in Orange County, too often lack: a connection to the history of the art form.
With the exception of the Mozart sonata, all the works on Wednesday’s program were drawn from the golden age of the classical soloist, which spanned most of the 19th century into the early 20th. It was an era when the personality of the performer was allowed to come to the fore, meld with the music and make it an intensely personal statement.
That’s what Grosvenor does. He’s reminiscent of a generation of pianists that are long gone, European men who were only a generation or so removed from Liszt and his high-octane histrionics: Josef Hofmann, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Artur Schnabel, Alfred Cortot, Arthur Rubenstein. Grosvenor’s performances aren’t mere interpretations; sometimes his playing is so personal, quirky and full of conviction it seems like an act of co-composing.
Beethoven’s “Moonlight” sonata is a good example of this kind of pianism. It’s cheeky to program such an overplayed chestnut unless you’re going to completely rethink it, which is exactly what Grosvenor did. The first movement, the most remarkable of the three on Wednesday, contained none of the self-important ponderousness that so often undermines it. Grosvenor transformed it into an expression of poetic understatement, and the deliberately muted approach to familiar and hyper-emotive moments made the movement a revelation.
Grosvenor performed the same magic on Schumann’s only slightly less overplayed Arabesque. Again, we heard an over-familiar work freshly defined.
For those who like even meatier pleasures, the second half of the concert brought the works of Scriabin, Granados and Liszt, whose Rhapsodie espagnole was the Arabian stallion of the evening.
Even here, though, Grosvenor wasn’t content merely to wow us with his prodigious technique. It served a higher purpose, which was to capture the larger-than-life composer behind the music. Liszt was a showman’s showman, and this was his gaudy calling card. He played it to dazzle and overwhelm (and, of course, to woo the ladies). The work is a pianist’s Iron Man event, and when performed as Grosvenor did (and undoubtedly Liszt, in his time) it’s more than just a tour de force – it’s a celebration of the capabilities of the human mind and body.
The encore, Moritz Moszkowski’s Etude in A flat, Op. 72, No. 11, was pure Grosvenor – personal, hypnotic, scintillating.
I hope Grosvenor has a long and illustrious career, but if I were you I’d see him as soon as you can. Even the greatest pianists can’t sustain this level of technique and performance energy forever. Right now, though, this young man is in his prime.
Where: Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall
When: Wednesday, May 3
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