Homages Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Partita BWV 1004: Chaconne (transcr. Busoni) [14:08] Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Prelude & Fugue for piano in E minor, Op. 35 No. 1 [9:04]
Prelude & Fugue for piano in F minor, Op. 35 No. 3 [6:43] César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Prélude, Choral et Fugue, M21 [18:28] Fryderyk CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Barcarolle in F sharp major, Op. 60 [8:29] Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Venezia e Napoli (3 pieces), S. 162 [17:51]
Benjamin Grosvenor (piano)
rec. 10-13 December 2015, Wyastone Concert Hall. DECCA 483 0255 [74:43]
After his meteoric and youthful career launch, Benjamin Grosvenor is establishing a respectable record catalogue with the Decca label, this being his fourth album in a collection that includes concertos as well as solo works. The ‘Homage’ aspect of this particular programme gives an added unity to a recital already held together by its Romantic content, the works having been chosen as they “make something new from the old.”
Grosvenor’s approach allows plenty of space for creativity in performance, taking the score as a starting point but walking that fine line between respecting the wishes of the composer without being shackled too much by the notes on the page. The music has to breathe, the piano should sing, and the personality of the player has plenty to contribute while bringing each work to life. This recording is vibrant with energy and freshness, also managing to be deliciously free of artificial sounding mannerisms. If you are anything like me, you will relish the contrasts in touch delivered between composers. Grosvenor always seeks the horizontal, lyrical lines where they can be expressed, but Mendelssohn appears with a classical crispness in the miraculously swift Fugue of Op. 35 No. 5, contrasting with the pellucid colours in the opening of Franck’s Prélude; its subsequent extremes of dynamic also pointing to entirely different worlds. Depth or resonance and a feminine delicacy of touch gives Chopin’s Barcarolle a welcome richness, and Liszt’s reflective poignancy and darkness pitch us into cinematic melodrama that points towards the outer limits of what the pianist and his instrument can do.
All of these are fabulous performances, bristling with breathtaking detail and musical élan, brushing aside all questions of technique in favour of that most prized of gifts, supreme clarity of communication. A big draw is of course Busoni’s famous transcription of J.S. Bach’s Chaconne from the violin solo Partita BWV 1004. This can also become a melodramatic tour de force but, without holding back on the impact of such an overwhelming masterpiece, Grosvenor also manages to convey the humanity and monumental sense of suffering built into the work. There are lovely contrasts such as the soft central section at around 7:15 where it sounds as if the una corda pedal is employed, lifted at 8:02. In any case there is no lack of inventiveness at any stage of this performance, and as a musical journey this is a trip we could all do with taking from time to time, to remind us all that we need to strive harder if we are to reap life’s full rewards..
Recorded in that very fine venue for piano music, the Wyastone Concert Hall in Monmouth, this is an excellent production and should be on the shelf of every collector of good piano music. That said, this is a recording that needs care when seeking an ideal playback volume. Nick van Bloss at the same venue is a little less spectacular in terms of stereo spread and low-frequency wallop, but with this Decca recording there is a feel of just a little extra sprinkling of ‘processing’ that sails close to hyper-reality at times—though this may have to do with my habit of listening through headphones. The proportion between close-up detail and acoustic is however very good and, depending on your equipment and environment you are invited to throw open both channels and revel in a tremendous listening experience.