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Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, Op. 11 (1830) [38:26]
Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, Op. 21 (1829) [31:56]
Benjamin Grosvenor (piano), Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Elim Chan
rec. 2019, RSNO Centre, Glasgow
DECCA 485 0365 [70:24]

I’ll start with Piano Concerto 2, because it was composed and premiered first, though revised and published second, hence the numbering. In the orchestral introduction Elim Chan takes no prisoners. The soft, wistful violins and violas’ opening is immediately beaten down by very loud tutti chords and exciting, passionate orchestral surges, though for me the prominence of the trombone (from tr. 4, 0:47) in what’s in effect the descending motif of the wind and string bass is a bit too flash. However, what Chan reveals well is a pervasive melancholy in the quiet passages which seems to provoke a consoling second theme in the woodwind (1:16). A lovely, memorable theme, at once breezily bucolic and comfortingly chorale like, which now the tutti can take up with fervour and then just muse over a little when the piano leaps in with a fortissimo descending waterfall. This Benjamin Grosvenor makes arresting and pleasingly sonorous but not forced, before taking up the opening theme and showing its marked dynamic contrasts suit the solo piano better than the orchestra, especially when he adds some enriching elaboration. Still better, he then presents a third theme (3:10) which extends the elaboration as it’s a kind of sorrowful variant of the second and is soon treated to aria-like rhetoric. The piano is now firmly in charge. Grosvenor plays with a fine mix of delicacy, poise and dexterity which underplays somewhat the stile brillante, which is the extravagant virtuosity of early Chopin.

In due course the piano reaches that ‘cousin’ second theme, now marked con anima (4:55). Grosvenor plays this exquisitely, yet never better than in the simple, wondering gratitude of its opening phrase. But before long things become changeable: a fourth theme marked risoluto (6:24) quickly falls away in delicate whimsy, before becoming more affirmative and passionate, all the while the orchestra working more in partnership and then taking control in a tutti with references to the opening theme. For the movement’s development the bassoon amiably savours part of the second theme (8:15) and the piano responds by playfully treating the first, so a mix rather than fusion, but creating an idyllic moment before both, but especially the piano, grow more freewheeling. It’s the piano’s crescendos and fire that motivates an orchestral tutti in the same manner, the end of which blaze allows for the welcome soft contrast and recapitulation of the first theme, this time by piano, intent and solemn (10:45) and soon now seamlessly leading to the presentation of the second theme (10:59), con anima but with delicate running quaver, then semiquaver, then demisemiquaver tracery interspersed. As this becomes increasingly fitful, the energetic element of such a manner is emphasised through the recap of the fourth theme (12:21) whose whimsy and passion in turn are a fitting platform for the orchestra’s emphatic peroration which in turn allows it to end the movement with the opening theme just as it began it. And a performance which reveals the careful structure.

I compare the 1997 recording by Jan Simon with the Prague Philharmonia/Jiří Bélohlávek (Supraphon SU 4001-2). In the orchestral introduction I prefer Bélohlávek’s more tempered dynamics, less exciting than Chan but with more emphasis on melodic flow and in that itself momentum, as well as the trombone blended with the other bass instruments. Bélohlávek treats the second theme with a beguiling simplicity, occasionally shot with more fire. Simon’s piano entry is similarly straightforward with a fresh clarity, while he becomes more musing in presenting the third theme, as Bélohlávek earlier emphasising the melodic rather than dramatic aspects and incorporating the decoration as part of the melody’s seamless flow. Grosvenor brings more variety in articulation. Simon’s treatment of the second theme, on the other hand, suddenly creates more distance in its wistful reflection. His fourth theme is then in greater contrast more bustling, but joyous too. The bassoon and piano come equally relaxed from Bélohlávek and Simon, though the bassoon seems more encased in its own world. If Simon’s first theme recap is more mundane than Grosvenor’s, his second theme has a more rounded affection and appreciable integration of the decorative extensions. Bélohlávek nicely and wistfully styles the full circle ending. So, go to Grosvenor/Chan for more flair and dynamism, to Simon/Bélohlávek for more spotlighting of melodic essence and reflection.

Now, can you abandon yourself to an unremitting world of fantasy and its passionate fulfilment? If you can, the Larghetto slow movement is captivating. Its brief introduction alternates very soft becalming strings and more open-air soft woodwind. The piano enters molto con delicatezza with the first theme, deliciously realized by Grosvenor and I think could anyone other than Chopin spin a tune on the piano with such graceful embellishment? Yet the theme itself is just statically, however gorgeously, savouring the moment. So, I’d call what now happens (1:23) a second theme, because it progresses with a melody delivered in octaves and, through repetition and sequencing, becoming memorable before an extra layer of the fantasy of embellishment is applied and that treatment extended even more to the return of the first theme. Then the return of the second theme has an evangelistic boldness of declaration. The piano mostly in high tessitura, the change to low con forza (4:00) is a shock, Grosvenor suddenly a roaring lion. This is the preparation for the central section, tremolo strings and appassionata recitative by the piano (4:14). Grosvenor chooses not to make this too loud, even the crescendo in the following phrase which should end with two forte notes. But perhaps he wishes to make more magical the very soft opening fourth phrase (4:30), through which he only makes a gentle crescendo, then making the repeat of the first phrase at higher pitch truly appassionata (4:38). This section incorporates some smouldering sotto voce from 5:05 and closes with a soft and sweet descending peal of bells to usher in the most fantastic embellishments for the reprise of the first theme. That of the second theme is in its calmest presentation, with that amiable bassoon companion you’ll now recall appeared in the first movement, here first echoing the piano and then providing a roseate counter tune. For a coda Chopin brings back the introduction, but all its material now seems more assured. At the end Chan gets a lovely diminuendo from the accompanying strings.

Simon’s first theme is sustained with appreciable care but less smooth than Grosvenor’s, whose phrasing is more assured and tone creamier. Grosvenor’s second theme is also sunnier where I feel Simon’s, with the growing embellishment clearly delineated, is more studied than felt. Approaching the central section, Simon’s ‘lion’ isn’t as loud, but he begins the appassionata more strikingly, with closer attention to the dynamics of its second phrase, though his fourth phrase isn’t quite as telling as Grosvenor’s, nor is his sotto voce later. On the other hand, I prefer Bélohlávek’s edgier presence to the strings’ tremolo, taking his cue from the fz of the preceding note and first note of the tremolo in the second violins and cellos, where Chan more strictly keeps it p. I also feel Simon brings more glistening character to the ‘peal of bells’ just before his reprise of the first theme which has a pearly delicacy, but his accompanying bassoon in the second theme reprise isn’t quite as convivial as Grosvenor’s companion’s.

The manner which Grosvenor opens the finale, with a waltz of sad, wistful beauty, is similar to the melancholy of the first movement, but this at Allegro vivace has a protesting thrust in its tail, very much taken up by the orchestra. Happier is a second phase of activity (tr. 6, 1:14) with the piano’s running triplets over a serenely rising and falling melody in the woodwind, first heard on first clarinet, soon joined by first bassoon. It’s that woodwind melody in a much faster rhythm, now bubbly and jocular, that becomes a second theme, a mazurka from the piano (2:10), bringing total contentment, spun out in varied guises till it becomes more urgent and purposeful, even in the mazurka theme itself, now fully and firmly displayed in the left hand against the right hand triplets (3:52). The mazurka theme goes through a number of transformations, for instance delicate and creamy (4:11), then more robust (4:37), then with a focus on the opening motif as a kind of nocturne for two smoochy clarinets (4:56), at which point the piano skitters away to reprise the first theme, now a touch more carefree and civilised, but still with its original element of protest, emphasised in the orchestra’s response. Now the piano reprises the mazurka while in the coda the first horn, imitating a posthorn, glories in the mazurka and the piano’s brillante material confirms the festivities.

I like the way Simon/Bélohlávek begin the finale, the faster tempo than hitherto giving it an easier, carefree quality and crisp orchestration, but I also think Grosvenor/Chan are right not to hide altogether the work’s earlier melancholy. Come the piano’s running triplets and always when these occur, Simon supplies an attractive scintillance. His mazurka is suitably sportive, though also a touch heavier than Grosvenor’s, not catching the latter’s airiness and idyllic quality. Simon’s right-hand triplets dominate the left-hand mazurka when both are heard together. The varied transformations of the mazurka are clearly delivered but have less distinctive contrast than Grosvenor’s. Simon’s first theme reprise is now warier, the opposite effect in comparison with Grosvenor’s, though this is mitigated by his firm sense of athletic dash in the brillante material.

In Piano Concerto 1 Chopin also has an opening theme of two elements, but in this case begins with the blustering element, the less interesting and characteristic, reliant on staccato punching, whereas the melancholic element, Chan flowing legato and espressivo, has the freedom of attitude and movement that the other’s stomping denies. Again, it’s the cantabile second theme (tr. 1, 1:36) that’s the most memorable, the first tender one and the first considered at length, with the woodwind extending it and opening it out and then an orchestral tutti revealing the passionate response it can stimulate before it continues a wistful, poetic journey. Then again, the shock of the piano’s entry, a thundering ff allusion to the opening theme. Grosvenor gives this a sufficiently formal, yet relatively understated, impact, being more attentive to the upper register presentation of the espressivo melancholy. This is validated when he introduces the third theme (5:12) which begins as a tailpiece to the second but furthers the focus on sadness with his eloquently articulated quaver descents over running semiquavers, like dropping tears in its ends of phrase. Equally memorable is the transition to the second theme, whose extension by the piano sees it more reflective than previously, a particularly lovely moment (6:40) being a velvety first horn taking up that reflection as an accompaniment to the piano’s continuation. Again, Grosvenor demonstrates how much more subtlety of variation of dynamics and mood can be achieved on the piano than with the earlier orchestra version, satisfying though that is as an initial overview. This section ends with a leggierissimo display of running semiquavers (7:57) which is also hospitable to some right- hand melodic articulation to bring a sense of progression and denouement. Chan succeeds in raising the bluster to epic validity, though this ultimately amounts to a more sonorous mirroring of the passionate intensity the melancholic material had already attained. It’s fitting, then, that Grosvenor takes up that melancholy, now lightened through more leggierissimo elaboration before a risoluto bravura takes over (11:26), stunningly accomplished by Grosvenor, but I’m nevertheless grateful for the orchestra’s reprise of the opening theme. Grosvenor can now return to that melancholy material in purer, more objective analysis of the beauty of its melody and even more so the return of the third theme (14:40) whose sadness has become assuaged, left ennobling but not consuming. The piano can then turn in the same manner to the second theme, with this time the first bassoon as an echoing companion. The peroration is set up by piano agitato semiquavers (17:26) against a falling four-note phrase in the clarinets, then flutes. But as Chopin and Grosvenor have taken pains to transmute the passion, the agitation here is more a matter of emphatic statement, most of all in the orchestra’s tutti three chord closure of the strings’ phrase at which the piano first entered.

I compare another recording published in 2020, a live one by Takako Takahashi with the New Japan Philharmonic/Ken Takaseki (Triton download 4538182860007). They time the first movement’s Allegro maestoso at 20:17 to Grosvenor/Chan’s 19:07, which doesn’t seem to me an advantage. Takaseki’s opening theme is generally heavier, more rugged, lacking Chan’s crispness, though he does bring a compensating attractive lilt to the melancholy element. He treats the second theme, smoothly shaped and affectionate, more emotively than Chan, also with a dreamy quality and glow to its climax. Takahashi’s piano entry is more powerful than Grosvenor’s. Her melancholy element of the first theme is distinctly articulated and affecting, but not as smoothly beauteous as Grosvenor’s. Her third theme is pleasingly fluid, but not as tranquillo, as marked, as Grosvenor’s. Takahashi’s transition to the suddenly smoother second theme is well contrasted, though the companionship with the horn has a less moving unanimity of feeling than Grosvenor and his horn provide. The heart-on-sleeve quality of Takaseki’s following ‘epic buster’ tutti is more compelling than Chan’s. Takahashi’s leggierissimo elaboration, however, lacks the delicate element of fantasy that Grosvenor brings and the risoluto bravura, while firm, misses the exciting thrust and edge of Grosvenor. There is a welcome airiness to Takahashi’s return of the melancholy element of the first theme, if not the depth of consideration evident from Grosvenor. In the return of the third theme Takahashi finds an engaging plasticity, but it overlooks, in a way that Grosvenor does not, that it has been the resolve following sad experience. Takahashi’s return now to the second theme has an especially relaxed, dreamily idyllic manner, but Grosvenor’s bassoon companion here is better defined. Takahashi’s peroration is more eager, with skipping momentum, with vivid orchestral support from Takaseki. This is a good example of the best of their account, which is sometimes less tidy but also more spontaneous than Grosvenor/Chan’s.

In the Romanze slow movement I wonder, can you have too much serenity? The rondo theme as it appears in the piano (tr. 2, 0:53) is charming, simple and homely; but, of course, it becomes increasingly elaborate and transforms into the manner of an aria, while by 2:12 the first bassoon is providing a glowing, easier melodic counterpointing support. The serenity is exquisitely done by Grosvenor. But for serenity to be fully appreciated it needs at some point to be challenged and overcome that challenge. What is here, I feel, is not very differing shots of the same scene. An agitato passage (4:47) and episode in C sharp major is the fullest contrast and Grosvenor makes it a bold presence. But it is easily swept away by the reprise of the rondo theme (5:41) with the piano again supported by its faithful companion bassoon. Grosvenor also makes very distinctive the high tessitura leggierissimo passage leading into the coda: for me it’s like surveying an icicle about to melt on the window outside the cosy environment of the somewhat disguised return of the rondo theme, softly and sensitively applied by Chan’s muted strings and wind while Grosvenor floats in triplets in semiquavers above. OK, you can quite happily bask in this.

I find it less easy to bask with Takahashi, and like the outcome less. Takaseki’s opening is an appreciated, rather serious dreaminess followed by Takahashi’s well-detailed, but very intently projected serenity. I prefer Grosvenor’s greater relaxation and sense of flow, in comparison with which Takahashi seems effortful, especially in the leggierissimo passages, though the one leading to the coda has a pleasing liquid quality, even if I prefer Grosvenor’s spookiness here. Takahashi’s agitato passage is less contrasted than Grosvenor’s because she has already been hardly relaxed, and her closing floating semiquavers remain edgy. However, Takaseki’s bassoon soloist is attractively individual.

Towards the end of the rondo finale I wonder, can you have too much virtuosity? But it has taken until then for the chains of semiquavers in triplets to start to pall and I have no complaints at all about the easy vivacity with which Grosvenor delivers them. The predominant experience is fun, right from Chan’s mock serious introduction, through the light touch of Grosvenor’s impish scherzando presentation of the E major rondo theme, with teasing hesitations in tempo, as marked, as if not wholly ready to party, and provoking Chan to jolly things up. To stabilize matters in any case there’s a risoluto second element to the theme (tr. 3, 2:02) to which Grosvenor brings a more forthright presentation. And instead of an episode there’s a second theme in A major (2:53), creamily presented by Grosvenor in standard treble tessitura in the left hand and simultaneously an octave higher in the right. Even so, the piano soon prefers returning to the semiquavers in triplets, runs which have already become a feature of its contribution. I admire Grosvenor’s brilliance in these without strain and his cool dolcissimo fake recapitulation style return of the rondo theme in E flat major (4:49), soon scampering back to the correct E major. This trick is repeated when the second theme returns first in B major (7:19) before becoming respectable. In the coda, Grosvenor relishes a new rhythmic firmness as a foil to the closing virtuoso high jinks.

Takaseki goes for a somewhat fiery introduction to suggest there’ll be plenty of pep, which is OK as a sportive Takahashi takes up that cue, though I prefer Grosvenor’s winking quality which brings into better relief his more marked tempo variations. By now, however, Takaseki’s orchestra is as jolly as Chan’s. Takahashi’s treatment of the risoluto second element to the rondo theme is more grandly glowing, perhaps because she needs more contrast here than Grosvenor, but it works well. Even better is the wistful gaze and greater change of mood she brings to the second theme, though without the luxury of Grosvenor’s creaminess to enjoy. The nervous energy Takahashi gives the virtuoso passages is a contrast to Grosvenor’s ease of projection, but equally suited to this finale. She brings an attractive feel of toying to the rondo theme’s fake reprise and a nice gradual settling of the second theme’s false return. The calmer manner of her start to the coda, not as vividly emphatic as Grosvenor’s but firm enough, makes for an appropriate sense of summation.

In sum, for me Grosvenor’s consistently satisfying accounts have more authority than Simon’s and Takahashi’s. He is fluent, assured, charismatic, ebullient, fiery as appropriate: the complete player, gliding over the virtuoso elements. Chan’s support is ever adept.

Michael Greenhalgh

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