Fireworks from a poet of the piano
A full hall eagerly awaited the return of British pianist, Benjamin Grosvenor, to Ilkley after a gap of 11 years. His programme of works by Chopin and Liszt, although a challenging one, started with the Chopin C sharp minor Nocturne, a quietly brooding piece, and the F sharp major Barcarolle, a more tempestuous work. Grosvenor, sitting forward over the keyboard, was not content with offering us just an excellent performance, but seemed to be searching for the right tonal quality for each note. This is the wonder of listening to Benjamin Grosvenor – there is no flamboyance, all is at the service of the music but his poetic response to that music brings out new sonorities, almost recomposing the music as he plays.
The first half finished with a performance of Liszt’s B minor piano sonata, a work that has had a mixed reputation. A single-movement work, I find it works best if you can be swept along by the way in which the composer reuses his limited thematic material to make a cohesive musical argument but it can, as Clara Schumann famously said, sound like ‘blind noise’. From the ghostly opening chords, Grosvenor was again looking for every tonal nuance he could find in the music. They were wonderfully varied – I have rarely heard so many sorts of pianissimo – rustling, tinkling, shimmering – and the forte notes varied similarly but at points beyond excess. For me it was not a success.
In the second half, however, Benjamin gave a masterly performance of Chopin’s third piano sonata which it is hard to imagine could be bettered. There was plenty of romanticism and fire; the filigree running notes of the scherzo stopped magically for the reflective trio and the slow movement had all the lyricism you could want for its nocturnal melody. The finale rounded off the performance in grand style and led to justifiable and extended applause, while the encore of Schumann’s Abendlied, calmed us down and sent us on our way. It was a concert that I shall long remember!