by Mike Telin
Like many musicians, British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor’s career received a jump start after winning a competition. “I won the keyboard section of the BBC Young Musician in 2004, and this began my performing career,” Grosvenor said in an email. “Obviously I was very young at that point and did not play very much, but the attention from the competition brought me concerts.” The pianist later became part of BBC’s Radio 3 New Generation Artist Scheme, which he said was “particularly important for my career, leading to opportunities such as performing at the BBC Proms as well as giving vital recording experience and the possibility to develop relationships with the BBC orchestras.”
On Sunday, November 12 at 4:00 pm, in Finney Chapel, Benjamin Grosvenor will make his debut performance on the Oberlin Artist Recital Series.
Tickets are available online.
Mike Telin: You’re presenting a wonderful program, and you’ll be playing it many times while you are in the States. Could you please say a few words about each of the pieces?
Benjamin Grosvenor: In building this programme, I started with Brahms’ Four Pieces, Op. 119. Having performed a number of the chamber works and his First Piano Concerto, I wanted now to explore some later works and settled on this set. The four pieces are singular and contrasted works. The first intermezzo has a sense of sadness and resignation, with the dissonance of the opening bars immediately creating this searching atmosphere. The second is agitated in the outer sections, with a luminous waltz in the middle. The third is light-hearted and humorous, and the Rhapsody is largely defiant and joyous, though ending with darkness and agitation in the tonic minor.
Around the time that I was putting together this programme, Brett Dean sent me his three pieces Hommage à Brahms, written as interludes between each of the four Brahms Op. 119 works. I thought it was very effective as a set, with Brett’s works providing illuminating contrasts to the Brahms, and I was fascinated by this juxtaposition of old and new.
A friend had introduced me to George Copeland’s recording of his transcription of Debussy’s L’après-midi d’un faune, and I thought this ideal for this programme. It is perhaps hard to believe that this work was written just a year after the Brahms, and it serves as an ideal preface to the chromatic and tonally ambiguous world of the Berg sonata. Debussy had used whole-tone scales and stretched tonality, evoking atmospheres in sound that had not been known in Western music until that time — Pierre Boulez called this work the beginning of modern music.
Debussy’s champion and friend George Copeland had made a transcription for piano, as had Leonard Borwick. There is an interesting quote from Copeland about his arrangement:
I spoke to [Debussy] of my desire to transcribe some of his orchestral things for the piano — music which I felt to be essentially pianistic. He was at first sceptical, but finally agreed, and was in complete accord with the result. He was particularly delighted with my piano version of L’après-midi d’un faune, agreeing with me that in the orchestral rendering, which called for different instruments, the continuity of the procession of episodes was disturbed. This has always seemed to me the loveliest, the most remote and essentially Debussyan, of all his music, possessing, as it does, a terrible antiquity, translating into sound a voluptuous sense that is in no wise physical.
Looking through the scores of the original and these two transcriptions, I came to the view that Copeland was a little sketchy in places, almost as if a reminiscence of the work. What I have ended up playing is mostly Borwick, with a few touches of Copeland and of my own.
I have loved the rich harmonic world of Berg’s music since performing some of his songs during my student days. I also relished getting to know his Violin Concerto by reading it through with a friend. The Sonata, Op. 1 is a dark and emotive work, dramatic and uneasy, with a sense of tension that stretches from the first cadence until the final coda when the tonic triad is finally reinstated.
The programme ends with Gaspard de la Nuit, written in the same year as the Berg sonata. It is a piece I played a number of years ago and recorded, but I love the work and felt it was time to return to it. It contains some of the most evocative and atmospheric music written for the piano, and perhaps some of the most chilling.
The Bach French Suite No. 5 acts as a kind of preface to all of this. With quite a lot of darkness in this programme, I thought the ideal opening would be this light, cleansing work.
MT: The music of Ravel has been central to your programs for a long time. What is it about his music that you find attractive?
BG: Ravel had many different guises, from the music of Gaspard to Tombeau de Couperin, and to the jazz-infused writing of the piano concertos. He wrote exceptionally for the piano with such inventiveness, while with the ears of a master orchestrator. There seem so many sounds and colours to explore in his music, but what is often particularly touching about Ravel is the sense of emotional restraint his music can have. There can be a feeling of great sadness lingering beneath the surface that can be incredibly touching.
MT: I have read that one of your favorite pianists from the past is Horowitz.
BG: Horowitz combined an electric temperament with a fervent musical imagination, and a masterful ability for tonal painting and colourisation. He could create the most breathtaking moments and turns of phrase, and could make a Chopin mazurka or a Scarlatti sonata almost unbearably touching. There are of course a great number of other musicians who I also admire, particularly from that era. There were so many distinctive personalities at the keyboard.
MT: You are on the road a lot. How have you learned to stay focused while traveling from city to city? How do you stay in touch with your family and friends?
BG: I don’t find it particularly difficult to stay focussed while travelling between cities. Indeed, a problem is perhaps that I don’t find enough time to enjoy the cities I travel to! One thing I suppose I do find helpful is to record concerts and to listen back to them in between performances, for which there is often ample time in airports and planes. I find this helps me keep my head firmly in the game, as it were, and is useful to reinforce my impressions of things I would like to change or work on. Travelling like this for work has its upsides and downsides — it’s certainly not quite as glamorous as one might think! Particularly when playing recitals there is usually little time to explore a city, but when I do find the time I am very grateful to have the opportunity to travel like this. I think I am lucky to be pursuing this in the time of the Internet, where one can Skype with people back home. I try though not to stay away for more than two or three weeks at a time.
Published on ClevelandClassical.com November 7, 2017.
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