Pianist Benjamin Grosvenor charts his own adventurous musical path

Thu Feb 16, 2017 at 2:16 pm

By Hannah Edgar

Pianist Benjamin Grosvenor will perform Sunday afternoon at Symphony Center. Photo: Sophie Wright/Decca

Pianist Benjamin Grosvenor will perform Sunday afternoon at Symphony Center. Photo: Sophie Wright/Decca

In classical music, talk of musical “prodigies” can be loaded. On one hand, nearly all performers were prodigies, their preternatural talent asserting itself at an early age. But when the word “prodigy” trails an artist throughout his or her career, it’s taken to imply flashy virtuosity, a childhood lost to incessant touring or tyrannical parents, and, too often, premature burnout.

That’s not Benjamin Grosvenor. Since his acclaimed debut as a finalist in the 2004 BBC Young Musician of the Year competition, the British pianist has deftly avoided the trappings of the label, and his star only continues to rise. After losing the finals of the BBC Young Musician of the Year (to a young Nicola Benedetti), he avoided competitions and scaled back public performances, but still managed to rack up impressive solo appearances as a teenager: by 13, he’d made his Carnegie and Royal Albert Hall debuts, and he opened the 2011 BBC Proms at just 19. The same year, he signed to Decca Classics; his fifth album, Homages, came out last autumn. 

Most recently, in October 2016, he was announced as the inaugural recipient of the New York Philharmonic’s Ronnie and Lawrence Ackman Classical Piano Prize, slating him for a solo appearance with the orchestra in April 2018.

“People do always talk about age, I suppose,” Grosvenor said in a phone interview with an almost aural shrug. “But there’s always an aspiration to be taken seriously at the highest level and for age to not be a limiting factor.”

Now 24 and preparing for a U.S. recital tour, Grosvenor has come a long way since his youthful debut. But aspects of his musicianship which impressed early on have become more finely honed—a probing thoughtfulness, deliberate touch, and sometimes a bit of idiosyncrasy in his interpretations.

His artistic precociousness owes in part to a musically marinated background: Grosvenor’s mother was his first piano teacher. She recognized the depth of her son’s talent when he flew past her advanced students within a few months of picking up the instrument. Later on, the young Grosvenor discovered recordings by midcentury piano virtuosos—Vladimir Horowitz, Alfred Cortot, Artur Schnabel, Dinu Lipatti—and became hooked. He has credited the “old dead greats” with shaping his musical philosophy, one which prioritizes individuality of interpretation over come scritto literalism.

“If an artist feels very strongly that something might work in service of the music if it were played a different way, then they should follow that instinct,” he said. “You can of course do things differently for the sake of doing things differently, but if you have that conviction from years of studying and living with the piece, it can be interesting to follow that rather than deny yourself that freedom.”

Another constant over the years has been the sheer breadth of Grosvenor’s repertoire. The program of his upcoming U.S. recital tour reveals a restless musical mind, pairing Austro-German familiars like Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, and Liszt with Scriabin and Granados. Even as a preteen, his rep for the 2004 BBC competition was similarly venturesome: Scarlatti sonatas, Mily Balakirev’s The Lark, Carl Vine’s Five Bagatelles, and the Ravel Piano Concerto in G.

“I don’t [fixate] enough on the work of any one composer in particular to focus on any one thing,” Grosvenor admitted. “It can be a challenging thing to do, to play so many different styles in one concert. But I enjoy doing it.”

His most recent CD, Homages, encapsulates this broad palette. The album collates works which pay tribute in some way: to previous musical periods, to places, to people.

“I initially thought of doing a Baroque Revisited CD featuring composers looking back to the Baroque period, and a strand of that is still there [in the Bach-Busoni Chaconne, Mendelssohn Preludes & Fugues, and Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin]. But it didn’t reflect the variety of my programs at the time, and I do like to try to record things that I’ve been performing in concert.”

According to Grosvenor, his omnivorousness is a form of urgency: simply put, there aren’t enough hours in the day to delve into the repertoire. But he relishes the adventure ahead.

“I suppose if you have a varied musical taste, you don’t explore any one composer’s work completely extensively: there’s many Beethoven sonatas I haven’t played, for example, and Mozart sonatas. And there’s some composers whose work I’d say I’ve neglected, because there’s so much to get to, [like] Debussy,” he said.

“It’s wonderful to be a pianist and have such a huge repertoire, but there’s still a lot to explore.”

Benjamin Grosvenor performs music of Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann and Liszt 3 p.m. Sunday at Symphony Center. miamichambermusic.org 

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