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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.