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The serious talent of pianist Ben Grosvenor

Alexandra Coghlan hails a young pianist who knows what to leave out.

Ben Grosvenor
Queen Elizabeth Hall, London SE1

Mitsuko Uchida, Freddy Kempf, Angela Hewitt – the Southbank Centre’s International Piano Series has got some heavyweight names in this year’s line-up but none perhaps as interesting as a 20-year-old pianist from Southendon- Sea making his series debut on 31 October.

Ben Grosvenor first came to public attention in 2004 when, as a solemn boy of just 11, he won the keyboard final of BBC Young Musician of the Year. After almost a decade of study and consolidation in smaller regional venues, Grosvenor returned in formidable style last year when he became the youngest ever soloist at the first night of the Proms, as well as the first British pianist in more than 50 years to secure a recording contract with Decca. Already this year Grosvenor has added two Gramophone Awards, a Critics’ Circle Award and a Classic Brit to his accolades, and secured a place on Radio 3’s New Generation Artists programme.

So, it was no surprise that a sold-out hall greeted Grosvenor’s Southbank debut and even less that he looked back at his audience with little sense of strain or pressure. This is a pianist who, since the age of 12, has treated music as a nine-to-five job and his professionalism is absolute – perhaps just a little too absolute at times, taking us to the brink of brilliance, but never quite making the leap into its inherent abandon. But unlike a player such as Leif Ove Andsnes, who doesn’t have it in him to risk elegance and precision for passion, Grosvenor gives the impression of emotions as yet unharvested.

In a programme that pulsed and swayed with rhythm, Grosvenor took us through the long relationship between the piano and dance music. The virtuosity and excess of the waltz would come later, but it was with the decorous steps of Bach’s Keyboard Partita No. 4 in D major that we opened. Characterising each voice within his textures, Grosvenor achieved an almost choral counterpoint, tempering the rippling fluency of his treble line with the gruff mutterings of the bass.

But for all the polish and pace of the Ouverture, Courante and the Gigue, it was the slower movements that left the ear space to appreciate Grosvenor’s skill. The art of not-doing is harder than any amount of virtuosity (as the sighing and gurning convulsions of pianists everywhere attest) and it’s one at which Grosvenor is particularly gifted. Letting Bach’s incremental patterns speak for themselves, he dared do less rather than more with this music – his artful simplicity a foil to its artless sophistication.

Bounding across Europe and through time, we found ourselves among the Polish aristocracy for Chopin’s Polonaise in F sharp minor and his Andante spianato et grande polonaise brillante. Making as bold an attempt at the opening Polonaise as any young cavalry officer new to the ballrooms of Warsaw, Grosvenor swaggered gamely through its rhythmic measures. But despite his technical assurance, glimpses of a provincial newcomer still occasionally flickered and I never quite believed the neatly coiffed passions he offered up. The Andante spianato, however, was spun with impeccable deftness, watery little ornaments gushing over the accompaniment. A new emotional shade emerged with the whimsy of the Grande Polonaise brillante, with Grosvenor’s musical authority restored even in the moment he seemed to relax and relinquish it.

Chopin cast his long shadow on the music of the second half, looming over both the “faded valentines” of Scriabin’s youthful Op 3 Mazurkas, his Valse in A flat, and even lurking in the corners of Granados’s 8 Valses poeticos. Neither represents the peak of the composers’ invention, but as curiosities they offered an unknown scene for Grosvenor to paint as he would. Both benefited from his rhythmic flexibility, their fragile dances melting and shifting in their pulse even as their harmonies disintegrated so artfully into new and distant keys.

Lest Granados’s muscular lyricism proved too indigestible, Grosvenor’s programme sent us on our way in a sugar-haze of Viennese musical confectionary. Schulz-Evler’s piano transcription of Strauss’s “Blue Danube” waltz is as virtuosic as it is vapid, but somehow Grosvenor’s serious approach (never earnest, but always respectful) made something elegant of it, turning an ever more elaborate game of musical dressup into a plausible series of theatrical tableaux.

Assured at the keyboard, Grosvenor is undemonstrative. Rather than linger awkwardly in the very enthusiastic applause, he gave us three encores – almost, one suspects, to persuade us to stop clapping. Morton Gould’s Boogie Woogie Etude tipped the recital’s dance theme over the precipice into jazz, and suggested the tantalising prospect of a sequel concert taking us through the 20th century’s shimmies and glides.

Grosvenor is a serious talent. Meticulous and thought-through in his approach, he’s already a mature artist. But under the gloss, there are hints of an altogether rougher, more uncertain artist – one whose occasional errors or excesses might prove even more interesting than his current control.

Alexandra Coghlan is the New Statesman's classical music critic.

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis