Thursday, December 5, 2019

Benjamin Grosvenor - Schumann, Janacek, Prokofiev & Liszt - 12/01/19

Schumann: Blumenstück, Op.19 
Schumann: Kreisleriana, Op. 16 
Janacek: Piano Sonata 1. X. 1905 (From the Street) 
Prokofiev: Visions fugitives, Op. 22 
Liszt: Réminiscences de Norma de Bellini 

After my mom’s relentlessly busy two-week visit, I was more than ready to enjoy some well-deserved downtime for the extra-long Thanksgiving weekend. Therefore, my schedule revolved around friends, museums (a wonderful visit to the Frick Collection made me wonder why I do not go there more often) and… lots of champagne (just because Thanksgiving is an American tradition does not mean I cannot connect to my French heritage as well).
Then I was in for a kind of last-minute but totally welcome surprise in the form of an invitation from my friend Paula to a Peoples’ Symphony concert at Town Hall on Sunday afternoon to go check out young and fast-rising British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor in an intriguingly eclectic program. Add to that the long-overdue chance to catch up with her in person, and I started counting the days right away.
Then, as if to strongly mark the arrival of winter and the beginning of the holiday season, came our first full-blast winter storm, with an unappetizing mix of rain, snow and hail (or was it sleet?), prompting me to bundle up and head mid-town grumbling that this supposedly outstanding pianist had better be worth the hassle.

The first half of the program was all Robert Schumann, and really, who were we to complain? It kicked off with Blumenstück (Flower Piece), a short series of even shorter vignettes that were as fleeting as they were charming.
It was also an appropriate introduction to the much more substantial, brilliant and popular Kreisleriana. Written in only four days and dedicated to Frédéric Chopin, the stunning composition famously contains a wide range of emotions, including wild, tender and eccentric, while remaining always eminently engaging. If anything, Blumenstück and Kreisleriana positively confirmed that the enthusiastic rumors were true. Grosvenor has the technical skills and emotional maturity to dig deep into a score and confidently bring out the best of it.
Having been totally conquered by his understanding of Schumann, we were still curious to hear him tackle more modern and esoteric works by Janacek and Prokofiev after intermission. Comprised of two movements titled “Foreboding” and “Death” (Oh, boy!), Leos Janacek’s From the Street sonata has a story that is as interesting as the composition itself: Janacek wrote it to express his intense disapproval of the death of Frantisek Pavlik, a young carpenter who was bayoneted during a peaceful demonstration in support for a Czech university in Brno in 1905. As one would expect, the tribute is dramatic, dark and reflective, all qualities that Grosvenor conveyed with plenty of force and finesse.
A selection of Sergei Prokofiev‘s Visions fugitives perked us up next, with its delightful whimsical vignettes featuring the occasional strong Schonbergian dissonance as well as an overall subtle Debussyan touch. Since each movement lasted no more than two minutes, we all happily jumped from one to the other, fully enjoying Prokofiev’s playful mood and Grosvenor’s impeccable performance.
The official program concluded with Franz Liszt and his Réminiscences de Norma, which gloriously displayed one of the best scores based on another composer’s work in the Romantic piano repertoire. 

And that as not all. Buoyant by our ecstatic ovation, Grosvenor came with what was possibly more Liszt and was surely as exciting. The weather was still utterly disgusting when we got out, but Benjamin Grosvenor had been confirmed as an outstanding and worth-the-hassle pianist indeed.