It has been quite a year for Benjamin Grosvenor. He has landed a major recording deal, carried off enough awards to fill the mantelpiece at home, and had a substantial profile on CNN, which will have surprised anybody who was tuning in for the latest on the euro crisis that night. At the age of 20 that is quite a tally, especially for a pianist who has not carried off one of the big international piano competitions.
As his appearances at the BBC Proms and his first CDs have shown, Grosvenor is above all a technical wizard, a Harry Potter-like conjuror of the keyboard who can summon breathtaking cascades of notes. And yet, unlike other technically brilliant pianists, he does not seem to want to show off. He never bangs, never plays to the gallery, and certainly would not think of breaking into a sweat. He is, you might say, the reluctant virtuoso.
At the BBC Proms this gave us performances of star quality, which perversely often felt a size too small. A solo recital in the more intimate surroundings of the Queen Elizabeth Hall would seem a better fit for him, and in many ways this well-chosen programme delivered all the fireworks it needed to, but the question mark remains.
Sometimes it feels as if Grosvenor is simply playing for himself. In Chopin’s F sharp minor Polonaise the outer sections were typically dazzling, every note scrupulously clean and clear, casting shafts of sunlight across Chopin’s stormy Polish landscape. But the lyrical central section retreated unhelpfully into a private world: this is not not just about volume, but the ability to give the music the depth of tone, drive and projection to engage the people who are sitting in the back row.
Everything that was best about this recital came in music which had pace and personality ready built in. Chopin’s Grande Polonaise brillante sparkled effortlessly. Scriabin’s Waltz in A flat was at once seductive and mesmerising. A fantasy on the Blue Danube waltz by Andrei Schulz-Evler was fantastic in every sense of the word, elfin-light and glittering. At such times Grosvenor works magic, so let’s hope he will also be able to conjure that important missing ingredient.