For the past couple of years all but the major events in the Southbank Centre’s International Piano Series have been evicted during the restoration of the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Now, with the hall reopened, they are back, and what an ideal venue it makes: big enough for virtuoso firestorms, small enough for intimate whisperings.
It was fitting that the first pianist should be Benjamin Grosvenor, still only 25 and an inspiration for the future. He will also link back to one of the most memorable dates in the QEH’s history, when he takes part in an all-star Schubert “Trout” Quintet next month, replicating the famed 1969 televised performance by Du Pré, Barenboim and others.
When he first came to notice, still virtually in short trousers, the pre-teenage Grosvenor impressed for the sparkling brilliance of his technique (his first encore here, Liszt’s “Gnomenreigen”, showed it still dazzles). Since then, we have seen him extend his horizons to the point where nothing seems out of reach, either technically or artistically. His solo recitals recall an earlier generation of wizards of the piano.
The pianist’s own programme note promised to reveal the logic behind this recital, but it amounted to little more than that these are all pieces he likes. Bach’s French Suite No.5 immediately introduced a comprehensive array of colours, tender, playful, lyrical. Then it was an inspired idea to interweave Brahms’s last set of piano pieces, Op.119, with the Hommage à Brahms by Brett Dean, in which secondary motifs from Brahms’s music take on a life of their own and blossom into dreamlike fantasies.
In the second half he was prodigious in the colour and atmosphere he brought to a transcription of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune by Leonard Borwick, sounding like one of Liszt’s lavish orchestral transcriptions. There was impressive concentration in the single-movement Berg Piano Sonata of 1911, the hard intellectual nut at the centre of the programme, though the tone unusually became strident in its most intense passages. Finally, Grosvenor used to play Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit early in his career and this performance, as mesmerising as ever, had lost nothing. An electric current sizzles in this pianist’s fingertips.
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