Benjamin Grosvenor: Dances
Benjamin Grosvenor’s selection, simply entitled ‘Dances’, is lovingly planned rather than random. Ranging from Bach to Morton Gould, there are subtle reminders that, even if Chopin does not follow Bach ‘as the night the day’, you still recall Chopin’s love of Bach. Early Scriabin remembers Chopin, his Mazurkas written long before he developed or regressed into an obsessive mysticism. Chopin, too, was central to Granados’s inspiration (his Escenas románticas end with a graceful bow and tribute to Chopin called ‘Spianato’). Finally, the Schulz-Evler Arabesques on The Blue Danube, the Albeniz-Godowsky Tango and Morton Gould’s Boogie Woogie Etude – a free blossoming into a glorious liberation.
Having recently celebrated a disc largely devoted to one of Janáček’s darkest utterances, it is with a spirit of uplift that I now find myself listening to performances that are carried forwards on an irresistible tide of youthful exuberance. With no need of the international competition circuit to lift or lower his career, Grosvenor bypasses that ever-controversial arena to give performance after performance of a surpassing brilliance and character. However hard the slog in the practice room (such dazzle and re creation result from intense discipline), there is a sense of joyful release, of music-making free from all constraint.
Grosvenor’s Bach (the Fourth Partita, the most substantial item on the disc) is a vivid contradiction of a quaint, long-held view that Bach was essentially an academic, once unaffectionately known as ‘the old wig’, who provided useful contrapuntal fodder for exams. Such views long ago toppled into absurdity and like, say, Schiff and Perahia (though with an entirely fresh stance of his own), Grosvenor gives us Bach, our timeless contemporary. What drama and vitality he finds as he launches the Overture, what a spring – even swagger – in his step in the Courante, what unflagging but unforced brio in the final Gigue. And then you remember his Sarabande, where his pace and energy are resolved in a ‘still small voice of calm’. Dry-as-dusts may rattle their sabres but, like Horowitz, who confounded the pundits with his crystalline Scarlatti, Grosvenor creates his own authenticity, revelling in music of an eternal ebullience and inwardness, and erasing all notion of faceless sobriety.
This is followed by a wide but relevant leap to Chopin. The Op 22 Grande Polonaise may pay tribute to Chopin’s early concert-hall glitter (his opening salvo in the Etudes, Op 10, is a reworking of Bach’s first Prelude, also in C major, from his ‘48’) but even here Chopin can reflect his cherished memories. Grosvenor keeps everything smartly on the move (he is the least sentimental of pianists), spinning the composer’s vocal line in the introductory Andante spianato with rare translucency and with decorations cascading like stardust. There is never a question of attention-seeking, of ‘what can I do with this?’. Such things have no place in Grosvenor’s lexicon and everything is as natural as breathing. Textures, too, are as light as air, after a commanding summons to the dance floor, and both here and in the more mature Op 44 Polonaise there is an almost skittish erasing of all possible opacity. Again, detail is as acute as ever, with flashing octaves complemented by a magically sensitive central Mazurka and a sinister close, suggesting a dark undertow to Chopin’s all-Polish defiance (for Schumann the Polonaises were ‘cannons buried in flowers’).
Three Scriabin Mazurkas from his Op 3 remember Chopin with their characteristic major-minor alternations, the Sixth with its gazelle-like leaps followed by the Fourth and Ninth, alive with an already distinctive voice. In Grosvenor’s hands the A flat Valse becomes one of Scriabin’s most intoxicating creations and so, too, do Granados’s Valses poéticos. And while there is nothing so specific as the above-mentioned term ‘spianato’, there is still a sense of a distant relation to Chopin.
Finally, the Schulz-Evler Arabesques on The Blue Danube, once described as ‘sending fabulous spangles of sound spinning through the air’ in its introduction, followed by Grosvenor’s seemingly inborn elegance and sophistication in the waltz proper. The Albeniz-Godowsky Tango may be less sultry and insinuating than some (I have Cherkassky’s winking and teasing magic in mind) but Grosvenor’s cooler view is exquisite in its own entirely personal way. Then on to a fizzing finish in Morton Gould’s Boogie-Woogie Etude, and a headlong charge with still enough colour and variety to bring even the most staid audience to its feet.
Benjamin Grosvenor may well be the most remarkable young pianist of our time. And for him, choosing from his already extensive repertoire music for future recordings will surely be a labour of love. Decca’s sound is excellent and this is a disc to prompt wonder and delight in equal measure.