Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Piano Concerto No 2 in G minor, Op. 2 [22:08]
The Swan (transcribed by Leopold Godowsky) [2:32]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Piano Concerto in G major [20:44]
Prélude in A minor (1913) [1:25]
George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
Rhapsody in Blue. (Original jazz band version, orchestrated by Ferde Grofé.) [14:50]
Love Walked In (transcribed by Percy Grainger) [4:02]
Benjamin Grosvenor (piano)
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/James Judd
rec. 16-19 April 2012, The Friary, Liverpool. DDD
DECCA 478 3527 [65:45]
Still only twenty years of age, the British pianist, Benjamin Grosvenor is already making quite a name for himself. In 2011 he became the youngest soloist ever to appear at the First Night of the BBC Proms (review) and this year he was back at the Proms again, playing one of the works featured on this new CD, the concerto by Saint-Saëns (review). This is his second CD for Decca, following a well-received recital disc of Chopin, Liszt and Ravel (478 3206) and the new recording marks his concerto debut on disc.
The three pieces for piano and orchestra are well chosen. The Saint-Saëns concerto may not be the most profound among concertos but it’s a delightful piece, especially when it’s as well played as it is here. In the first movement both soloist and orchestra show no little finesse and, when called for, there’s bravura in Grosvenor’s playing too. He demonstrates deft fingerwork in the filigree writing of the Allegro scherzando movement, where the orchestra is similarly light on its feet, while the finale is played with great drive and enthusiasm.
The opening movement of the Ravel concerto sparkles. Grosvenor is on very fine form and the playing of the RLPO is razor-sharp; I appreciated the good amount of orchestral detail that the engineers capture. In this movement the famous passage where Ravel has his soloist play the second subject all joined up with trills is something of a touchstone for me. In my experience no one has ever played it quite like Michelangeli on his wonderful 1957 recording (EMI) but Grosvenor plays this passage very well indeed. He plays with excellent poise in the exquisite slow movement and the passage where the cor anglais plays the theme while the pianist decorates the melody (from 5:30) is beautifully done by both Grosvenor and the fine RLPO player. The whiplash finale is despatched at a great lick and is a riot of high spirits. I enjoyed this performance no less than that of the Saint-Saëns concerto.
Grosvenor and James Judd opt for the 1924 jazz band scoring of Rhapsody in Blue. I’m glad about that because I much prefer to hear the work in Ferde Grofé’s superb scoring. In this performance the RLPO’s clarinettist launches proceedings with panache and relish – and we’re off! It sounds as if everyone’s having a ball in this performance. The orchestral parts really fizz and Grosvenor’s playing has sparkle and wit. Furthermore, both pianist and the ensemble players clearly revel in the famous Big Tune when it arrives – though without milking it. The whole performance has great pizzazz and I really enjoyed it.
Grosvenor adds a little encore by each of his three chosen composers and the selection of encores proves inspired. I love the way that he’s gone slightly off the beaten track for each one. The only original is the Ravel piece. This is a tiny little Prelude that Ravel wrote in 1913 as a sight-reading test for the Paris Conservatoire. Slight it may be but it’s written with the composer’s trademark delicacy and elegance. It’s a fastidious miniature and a delightful foil to the concerto. The other two encores are arrangements of original pieces by third parties. Godowsky’s arrangement of Saint-Saëns’ celebrated cello melody acknowledges that the piano can’t sustain a note in the way that a stringed instrument can. Godowsky’s solution is to clothe the melody in elaborate decoration. The result is a much more elaborate confection. It’s slightly disconcerting to hear the melody played in a higher register than usual but, as Benjamin Grosvenor says, the arrangement is “deliciously free” and he plays it delightfully. If you think Godowsky’s take on Saint-Saëns is elaborate wait till you hear what Percy Grainger does with Gershwin’s Love Walked In! It’s a truly flamboyant homage to a great song and quite possibly only Grainger would have been quite so daring – and got away with it!
So, there’s excellent piano playing to enjoy throughout this disc. In the three orchestral items James Judd secures responsive and keen playing from the RLPO; the orchestra is on top form.
The recordings have been made in The Friary. This is a former Roman Catholic church in Liverpool. Refurbished with help from the European Union, it has been turned into a rehearsal and recording facility for the RLPO and other Liverpool musical organisations. Though it’s been open since 2009 I haven’t come across a recording from this source until now. The results are pleasing and well-suited to the repertoire on this disc, not least because the acoustic sounds tighter and less spacious than the orchestra’s usual recording venue, the Philharmonic Hall. The Decca engineers have achieved very good results.
If I had to use one word to describe this disc it would be “entertaining”. It’s been a delight to sit back, relax and simply enjoy the music making on this disc. I daresay that in time Benjamin Grosvenor will turn his attention to the ‘big beasts’ of the concerto repertoire – Beethoven, Brahms, Rachmaninov and the like. I look forward to hearing him in such repertoire, of course, but I hope he never loses in his playing the sense of sheer pleasure that’s such a feature of this disc. For once I don’t feel it’s out of place to say ‘enjoy!’
John Quinn
A thoroughly entertaining disc. Enjoy!