Last February pianist Benjamin Grosvenor made his debut recording with Decca Classics in an album combining the works of Frédéric Chopin, Franz Liszt, and Maurice Ravel. Last August, a few weeks after Grosvenor’s twentieth birthday, Decca released his first concerto album, but only in the United Kingdom. Like the solo album, this covered the temporal span from the nineteenth century into the twentieth. Interestingly enough, his earliest selection was composed in 1868, about twenty years after Chopin’s death in 1849. The composer was Camille Saint-Saëns; and the work has come to be recognized as his most popular piano concerto, the second in G minor (Opus 22). Grosvenor then leapt into the thick of the twentieth century, returning to Ravel with the G major concerto, composed between 1929 and 1931, after which he backtracked to George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” in the original jazz band version composed in 1924. Finally, in a rather clever programming gambit, each of these concertos was coupled with an “encore piece” based on the same composer. I write “based on” because the Saint-Saëns encore is Leopold Godowsky’s arrangement of “The Swan,” while the Gershwin encore is Percy Grainger’s arrangement of “Love Walked In.” Only the Ravel encore was composed by Ravel, his 1913 prélude in A minor. This thought-provoking approach to concerto programming will be released in the United States by Decca on February 5; and the recording is currently available for pre-order from Amazon.com.
Unlike the recital CD, the prevailing aesthetic on this recording is decidedly twentieth-century. The Saint-Saëns concerto establishes Grosvenor’s capacity for jumping through any number of technical hoops without coming off as a self-absorbed show-off; and, while we cannot see him at work, he gives the impression that he can pull off Godowsky’s nothing-succeeds-like-excess arrangement with a sincere straight face. However, it is only after the programming moves into the twentieth century that the serious listener is likely to sit up and take notice.
One reason for this has to do with Grosvenor’s chemistry with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of James Judd. This can be appreciated with a bit of historical context not provided by Grosvenor’s nineteenth-century favorites. Instead, I refer primarily to Johannes Brahms and his impressive canon of chamber music composed for piano and strings, trios, quartets, and a quintet. Regular readers know that I often refer to any of these compositions as a “concerto for piano and very small orchestra.” From this point of view, when we consider the transparency in Ravel’s use of orchestral resources, the G major concerto can easily be called “chamber music for piano and very large ensemble,” while Gershwin’s jazz band can be taken as a harbinger of the concept of jazz as “chamber music by other means.”
Thus, what is particularly impressive about Judd up there on the podium is his ability to make both Ravel’s concerto and Gershwin’s rhapsody sound like chamber music. This is not to dismiss the technical demands that Grosvenor must master; but, on the latter two-thirds of this recording, it is clear that he has progressed far beyond technical display for its own sake. Furthermore, it is clear that he is perfectly happy with this “brave new world” of that twentieth-century aesthetic in which the relationship between soloist and ensemble has achieved (and sustained) a quantum leap.
As a result, while there are more recordings of both the Ravel and Gershwin offerings than I would want to take the trouble to enumerate, this is a recording that makes a solid and convincing statement of how things changed in the twentieth century and why that change was for the better.
The release of this new recording comes shortly before Grosvenor will make a short tour of the United States. Unfortunately, only one stop on that tour will include material from that recording; but those in Mobile, Alabama will be fortunate enough to experience Grosvenor’s account of his two twentieth century selections. He will perform by the Ravel concerto and the Gershwin rhapsody with the Mobile Symphony Orchestra on February 16 and 17. In addition, he has scheduled the following recital dates:
- February 10, San Diego, California (La Jolla Music Society)
- February 13, Houston, Texas
- February 19, Coral Gables, Florida (University of Miami)
- February 21, Cincinnati, Ohio