Wednesday, March 14, 2012

New Album Review: Benjamin Grosvenor Plays Chopin Liszt & Ravel

At my curmudgeonly worst I’m skeptical of child prodigies, when I’m better tempered I just fear for their future. Eleven-year old Benjamin Grosvenor was the youngest-ever winner of the 2004 BBC Young Musician of the Year Competition, and at age 13 he made his Carnegie Hall and Royal Albert Hall debuts. In 2011 he became the youngest British musician signed to the Decca label. Now, after hearing his debut album for Decca, I’m neither skeptical nor concerned about his future; he’s amazing and his future should be limitless.
Grosvenor has programmed an interesting album. He opens with Chopin’s Four Scherzos and balances things nicely by placing a Nocturne after each one. Sitting in the center of the program, serving as what Grosvenor calls in the liner notes “an unusual pivot” between Chopin and Ravel, is Liszt’s En rêve and two Liszt transcriptions of Chopin songs. Ravel’sGaspard de la nuit closes the program.

Grosvenor has the technique to push the incendiary outer sections of the Scherzos to the absolute limit, which he certainly does, but his playing is also tempered with intelligence so there’s no empty flash here. These are smartly structured works and Grosvenor clearly understands that. The Scherzo No. 2 in B flat minor is the showpiece performance of the four, with Grosvenor delivering a tour de force of shifting dynamics. His readings of the Nocturnes are exquisite; his beautifully sculpted performance of the C sharp minor is quintessential bel canto. Liszt’s En rêve is played with a delicate touch that reveals the piece’s gorgeous melodic line and is an ideal set-up for the closing work, Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit. Grosvenor’s performance of the Ravel is a showcase of pianistic color, measured touch and imagination, making it the highlight of the album. In each movement Grosvenor paints a vivid picture by dipping into a rich palette, particularly in the eerie “Le Gibet” tableaux.
Recording engineer Arne Akselberg has miked Grosvenor’s Steinway closely, but the sound is never percussive and all those subtle shades in the Ravel are beautifully captured. This is a remarkable debut recording that makes me hungry for Grosvenor’s next album.

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