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Benjamin Grosvenor Exclusive Interview: March 6, 2012

Benjamin Grosvenor

On Monday, February 27, 2012, Classical Archives Artistic Director Nolan Gasser spoke with the brilliant young English pianist Benjamin Grosvenor, shortly before the US release of his debut album on Decca – dedicated to the music of Chopin, Liszt, and Ravel. This 19-year old pianist has become nothing short of a phenomenon in his native Britain, and with this highly acclaimed new album he’s poised to conquer the rest of the world as well. In this delightful interview, Mr. Grosvenor discusses the origins and vision behind his new album, and his broad-minded approach toward interpretation – which likewise embraces aesthetics and techniques from the so-called “Golden Age”. The two also discuss his unique path from child prodigy, studying with his mother, to launching an international career, including how he’s handling the current media blitz surrounding him – as well as his evolving repertoire, future plans, and much more. Our feature also includes a set of Benjamin Grosvenor videos – including an extended excerpt from the Finale of the 2004 BBC Young Musicians Competition, which he won at age 11. Don’t miss this engaging interview from a most promising young musician!

“With every piece I play, I think about drawing out the different emotions and colors in the music, and creating the right level of emotional variety enabled by the particular details found in the music, in the best way I can.”
– Benjamin Grosvenor

[A note to our non-US visitors: this interview references the new Decca album by Benjamin Grosvenor. Due to licensing restrictions, however, we are unable to present this album in most non-US territories, for which we apologize. You can get a sense of this recording, however, from the first two videos on the right column.]

Nolan Gasser: Benjamin Grosvenor, welcome to Classical Archives. Tomorrow, February 28, 2012 is an important day in your nascent career, as your debut album on Decca – featuring selections by Chopin, Liszt, and Ravel – is released here in the US. And yet while classical audiences here are just starting to learn of your talents, a very different picture exists in your native Britain, where this same album was released last July – in turn yielding such consistently effusive praise in the UK press that the term “Grosvenor-mania” comes to mind, as uncomfortable as you may find that. So, to get started, can tell us how you are handling the barrage of media attention you’ve been getting?

Benjamin Grosvenor: I think I’m handling it well [laughs]. Of course, it’s nice to have praise applied to one's work; but what is most important to me is my own opinion on what I'm playing; I'm so intensely self-critical. So, I'm just hoping to keep my head above water, I suppose.

NG: I promise that we’ll be spending most of our time today talking about the actual music, and this new release – but just a bit more on the media attention, and all its trappings, if you don’t mind. We’re all aware of the public seduction that can surround a fresh, new talent – in your case, the enticement to compare you to the piano legends of the past, as has been done. But even in this celebrity-crazed world we live in, classical musicians don’t generally get put on “top” and “most influential” lists alongside such pop music icons as Paul McCartney and Adele, or political leaders like David Cameron [among others, Mr. Grosvenor has made The Telegraph’s “Top 10 Britons of 2012” and Evening Standard’s “1000 Most Influential Londoners of 2011”]. So, how have your family and teachers helped to prepare you to handle this kind of attention and praise – to, as you say, keep your head above water?

BG: I’ve been performing professionally for quite some time, since around the age of 11; at age 10, I entered the BBC Young Musician Competition, and got to the Finale – which was televised, so even at that age I had a certain amount of attention centered on me [he won the piano division of that same competition the following year, 2004, at the age of 11]. But my parents soon began to realize that I was getting tired from all that performing, and so over the next few years we began to limit the number of my concert appearances; we put them into three blocks of concerts per year, each with different repertoire – so that I had enough time to learn new material, as well as do other things. But having this build-up from a young age has helped me, now that I’m starting to have a more serious career.

NG: Do you make it a point to read every review, or do you try to keep a bit of distance from all that?

BG: When my new CD first came out, I was quite keen to read all of the reviews – to see what people were thinking of it; but as it was released last year, it's kind of gone out of my mind. I do still read my concert reviews – the criticism can potentially be quite helpful, so it’s worth reading; ultimately, I have my own opinions of how the concert went, but that’s not any reason to disregard others’ opinions.

NG: Indeed, it’s all about communication – a concert is like a dialogue between you and the audience, including the critics. Of course, in your case, the reviews have been wildly positive, so that helps. From your previous interviews, it’s obvious that keeping a modest and humble attitude is important, which I’m sure has been ingrained through your parents from an early age.

One final question in this regard: in our very social media-oriented world, where young people have such power of expression through Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and the like, do you think about what sort of goals or obligations you have – to be a kind of “spokesman for classical music” for your generation?

BG: Such is inevitable in the modern world, and it is important to keep an online presence. A lot of artists use Twitter to communication with fans, as well as Facebook, and things like that. I really don’t have any particular plans at the moment; it’s not something I’ve thought about – and maybe I’ll start to focus more on it when things with my career seem more steady, and I’ve been doing it a bit longer. Then I might start to think about what my goals are, because it definitely is important to try to encourage young people to get interested in classical music.

NG: I'm sure that you're aware that a number of young musicians – like Hilary Hahn and Jeremy Denk, among many others, write active online blogs, where they recount their tales from the road and engage with their fans that way. I’m sure you’ll figure out what works for you.

Let’s now leave all this incidental stuff aside, and turn to the actual music. As I noted, your new CD is on Decca – which was news in itself, as you became the first British-born pianist signed to this esteemed label in some 60 years – that is, back to the 1950s and the days of Clifford Curzon, Peter Katin, and Moura Lympany. Congratulations on that account.

BG: Thank you.

NG: For this release, you’ve chosen a program of Chopin – the 4 Scherzi, [Opp.20, 31, 39, and 54] and three nocturnes [Op.15, No.2 in F#; Op.72, No.1 in E-; and Op. posth. in C#-]; Liszt – his delightful miniature En rêve [S.207] and 2 little-known transcriptions of Chopin songs [“My Pleasures” and “Maiden Wish”]; and Ravel – his famed Gaspard de la nuit. You've spoken a bit about it in your promo video [see the right column], but can you talk about how this program came to be – and how much input Decca provided?

BG: I was quite lucky. The recording process was all done quite quickly, but it happened that Decca gave me free reign when it came to repertoire. I was very keen on recording Chopin's 4 Scherzi and Ravel's Gaspard, because I'd been playing them a lot in concerts – and I thought it would be good to put them down on record. Along with the Scherzi, I also decided upon a few Chopin nocturnes. So the Scherzi and Ravel’s Gaspard were the two cornerstones of the disc, but it seemed to me that there wasn't much justification for putting Chopin and Ravel next to each other – there needed to be some link between them.

The obvious composer to make this link seemed to me to be Liszt. The idea of the disc was thus to go from Chopin to Chopin-Liszt – which is Chopin viewed through the prism of Liszt; and then for the “link” piece, I chose this great work of Liszt, En rêve – which was written toward the end of his life. In Liszt’s late style he really abandons all of the virtuosity his music had in the early years; he became quite reclusive as an old man, and his style became extremely experimental – he wrote some very strange music, which looked forward to things to come. This piece in particular is quite experimental harmonically: much of the piece uses a pedal [a sustained pitch over shifting harmonies] and ends with a sequence of 2nd inversion chords – so it’s got this feeling of suspense throughout the whole thing. And this, I thought, pointed forward to Ravel, and that’s why I chose to put it there, right before Gaspard.

NG: That all makes great sense. And, of course, the fact that we just celebrated the bi-centennial of Liszt last year is also a nice part of the story.

BG: Yes, absolutely. And I think it’s important to remind people of the extent to which Liszt was capable of writing in such an economical manner – where so much is implied by so little.

NG: Yes, I think we've all been given a nice course on Liszt over this past year – as so many great pianists – including two that we’ve spoken to, Hélène Grimaux and Pierre-Laurent Aimard – have recorded discs dedicated to his piano music, in turn exposing the wide variety of his output. And as you say, his late works, with their progressive harmonies, spoke forcibly to both Ravel and Debussy at the end of the century.

I’m often intrigued by the order of tracks on a CD, and I’m assuming that yours is not an accident – for example, in the way that you chose not to play all four Scherzi one after the other, but instead to break them up by the three nocturnes. Is there any particular story behind that decision?

BG: I had always envisioned, in fact, playing the Scherzi out of numerical order, because to me the 2nd always felt like an ending piece, with the 1st being more of an opener. Of course, they weren’t composed as a sequence – and they’re all very different pieces from one another, though they’re all masterpieces in their own right; but apart from similarities in form, there’s no reason to put them in strict numerical order. So, I always thought of starting with the 1st and ending with 2nd, and placing the 3rd and 4th in the middle – but when it came to putting the disc together after everything was recorded, I thought that it would be good to insert the nocturnes between the Scherzi, as a kind of reprieve from the high drama of those larger pieces.

NG: I think it's a wonderful idea, and it makes the program feel very carefully drawn out. As you frame it, one almost senses a kind of overall “sonata” architecture in that order, with the very commanding 1st and 2nd scherzi forming the outer movements, and the shorter and lighter 3rd and 4th in the middle. And it sets up nicely the rest of the program, leading to the Liszt and Ravel.

Let’s turn next to your actual approach to playing this repertoire. The CD, as I’ve noted, has been the recipient of some pretty lavish critical praise – generally highlighting the uncommon way in which you place your rather impressive technique in the service of the color, the drama, and the architecture inherent in the music. Before we get to some of the roots of your approach, I’d love to hear you talk about your overall aesthetic of interpretation with regard to these pieces – that is, what general aspects of the music or the impact on the listener are your highest priorities when you sit down to play them?

BG: I guess with every piece I play, I think about drawing out the different emotions and colors in the music, and creating the right level of emotional variety enabled by the particular details found in the music, in the best way I can. Of course, it varies from piece to piece – as in every one you find different details that you want to bring out. I’ve always been lucky in that I’ve never had to work too much at technique – it’s kind of been there from a young age; but I’m always thinking about deeper things. As an example, in the first Scherzo, my tempo is quite a lot faster than how many other pianists play it; I wanted that faster tempo in part to provide a more effective contrast to the middle section. So, as you say, the technique always has to be in service of the music.

NG: I realize that this can be a hard topic to articulate, but we read all these critical reviews of recordings, and I think it’s interesting to see what the performers themselves are thinking – to see if it has much in line with what the critics are pulling out of it. You’ve said something I found intriguing: that you’re not afraid to go against what the composer may have initially intended – perhaps in tempo or phrasing – if it serves the music. This brings to mind the question of how you prepare a piece for performance or recording; can you talk about the process of finding your own approach to playing pieces such as these by Chopin and Ravel – how long will you sit with pieces of this weight, and when do you know that you’ve found your own voice with them?

BG: One important part of my process is that I listen to recordings of other pianists playing the music. When I first start to work on a piece, I try to learn everything I can just from the score – and during this period I don’t listen to anyone else’s recordings. But then I start to listen to other pianists – particular the older generation of pianists – because you can learn so much from their interpretations. In this period, I’ll hear things that I’ll react to positively, but also that I’ll react to negatively, where I’ll say, “I don’t like that – but why don’t I like it?” All of this helps me to understand how I want to approach the piece. And then, inevitably, it comes out through performance: I think there are a lot of things you don’t work out by practicing, but only by performing the piece numerous times. So, for example, the moment I realized I had found an individual approach to the Ravel was after hearing myself perform it.

NG: We’ll come back to the topic of listening to recordings by older pianists in a bit, but let’s first go back to your more formative audiences. Again, British audiences have been able to better follow this, since in 2004, at age 11, you won the piano division of the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition. You began studying with your mother, a piano teacher, from the age of 6 ½; I found it interesting that this was actually your second go-around with trying to pick up the piano, as your first attempt at age 5 didn’t quite take – but then you didn’t want to get outdone by your schoolmates, so you got serious. Can you recall at what point you or your mother realized that the piano was not just something you were good at, but that it could actually lead to the high-profile career you’ve now begun?

BG: I think my mother realized I had some kind of special talent for the piano when I was 8 years old: I was playing a Chopin waltz which she had given me; and I learned it far quicker than her older students, and seemed to have a more emotional understanding of the music. I’m not sure if there was a particular moment when I realized that I was good – I knew only that other people told me that I was good. But it was when I started performing that I realized that it was something I wanted to do. There was a concert I did when I was 10 years old, and there was something about that act of communication that really appealed to me – and it was at that time that I realized I wanted to become a concert pianist.

NG: It’s lucky when a career becomes so clear so young. You obviously didn’t have too much of a problem kicking in the many hours of practice required – several hours a day – even at 7 or 8 years old to build up your technique. Did your mother have to ward over you to practice, or did you have that motivation instinctively?

BG: In the beginning she had to a bit; initially I started the piano because she wanted me to, so I didn’t have any passion for it – I was never really drawn to the instrument. You hear stories of young musicians diving in and playing without encouragement, but I never had that in the beginning. I just settled on the piano because my mum was a piano teacher, and it was the instrument I was most familiar with. You’re right that the initial motivation came as a sort of competition with some friends at school, but then gradually it became something else: the more I practiced, the more I fell in love with the piano.

NG: You’ve spoken about how important your mother has been to your musical development – obviously – saying how she’s “shaped you musically”. Can you talk about some aspects of her teaching or her approach to interpretation that have been especially impactful for you over the years – and which remain with you today.

BG: She never had any interest in a performing career herself; she went to music college, and then immediately became a piano teacher. But what’s great about her is how open-minded she is about everything to do with music. In the early days of my playing, she was around to help me practice; we would think about the music together… and perhaps our working together helped to shape her as a musician as well; she had had a lot of young piano students, but now suddenly she had someone who was thinking about doing it professionally. At any rate, she would help me to form my interpretations, and even now she travels with me – and what’s wonderful about that is that I can still ask my mum, “Does this work here? What do you think of this?” And if she’s around, she can comment on how rehearsals are going, and on such issues as balance with an orchestra. In all that, she’s really valuable to me.

NG: I can well imagine; in fact, I was going to ask to what degree you still run things past her to get her thoughts and comments – it’s not only a great joy for her, I’m sure, but also invaluable for you, since she’s known your playing from the very beginning, literally.

Of course, as you got older you moved on to other teachers, and now are completing your studies at the Royal Academy of Music [RAM] in London; I’ve read that you’ve mainly studied with Christopher Elton, the former head of the piano department there. What have been some of the most valuable aspects of your studies at the RAM?

BG: I’ve actually been studying piano there since the age of 11; then at 13, I started having lessons there in other aspects of music – in what they call “contextual studies”, which is basically music theory. More recently, I’ve started lessons with another piano professor, Daniel-Ben Pienaar.

NG: Yes, I’ve read of some of your discussions with him.

BG: He’s great. We listen to performances and analyze them with regards to interpretations – that’s the best way to explain it. His approach is very different from that of Christopher Elton; Daniel-Ben is a very free-thinking musician, and quite eccentric, one might say. So, I’ve had his input as well, which has been hugely invaluable, and has changed me a lot as a musician. I had started the [Bachelor’s] Degree course two years earlier – when I was 16. I think the most valuable thing for me in that course has been learning the academic side of music – theory, history, music analysis, Schenkerian analysis [named after the early 20th century German theorist Heinrich Schenker], and all that stuff. And I think that my keyboard skills have also grown considerably – with regard to improvisation, syncopation, and transposition; all these kinds of things have really helped me to develop more broadly as a musician.

NG: Let’s now come back to the point you made earlier about listening to recordings of older pianists, as an element in developing your own style. This has been pointed out in other articles about you: that through your playing you embrace an older aesthetic, going back to the so-called “Golden Age” of piano performance – to the more individual, risk-taking approaches of artists like [Artur] Schnabel, [Alfred] Cortot, [Georges] Cziffra, and [Vladimir] Horowitz – as perhaps compared to the often safer and more predictable performances of many of today’s pianists. To cite one technique that you yourself have mentioned: rhythmic “asynchronization” of the hands [that is, where the two hands are slightly out of synch rhythmically], as you do with Chopin; it's so effective and so appropriate to the music, but it's not terribly common today. Can you talk about how this relationship to older recordings and older pianists has helped shaped your vision as an interpreter?

BG: When I was very young, I didn’t know many pianists; my early favorites were Stephen Hough and Evgeny Kissin. I’d also heard some Horowitz recordings, but they were from his later years – and I always thought he was a bit of a banging pianist, and I didn’t think much of them, at least at the age of 10 [laughs]. But then I befriended a record collector who began to send me boxes of albums, whereby I became aware of pianists like [Benno] Moiseiwitsch, Cortot, Cziffra, and so many others – which had a great impact on my piano playing. What’s interesting about asynchronization of the hands is that I was doing it before I heard all these people – for example, in a recording of myself when I was 12. So, certain “older” elements seemed to have been there naturally.

NG: Certainly, a technique like asynchronization doesn’t simply come out of thin air, but rather arises from the music itself – which is why pianists of an older generation began doing it in the first place; naturally, stylistic elements evolve and some things get out of date simply because they’re done too much in a particular era. But for you, it came naturally, and you were able to make it your own, particularly given your solid technique – which is what it takes to make asynchronization really work.

This conversation reminds me of my recent interview with tenor Joseph Calleja, who likewise has embraced the singers of the “Golden Age” – like [Beniamino] Gigli, [Franco] Corelli, and [Mario] Del Monaco: Calleja talked about his naturally thick vibrato, which stylistically was more common in earlier singers. Calleja also was quite critical of singers who make a kind of arbitrary edict not to listen to older recordings, and it sounds like you have a similar aesthetic – that such is important, not to copy, but rather to help find some “truth” about the music.

BG: The wonderful thing about that era of pianists is their individuality: everyone had their own voice and sound at the piano, a way of expressing themselves which is instantly recognizable. And I think that’s what perhaps is lost today. There was also a freedom in the music – not such an emphasis on following the composer’s intentions too strictly; and so if you listen to performances by Moiseiwitsch, he does a lot of things that aren't in the score; there's a more open-minded and individual approach to playing. That’s harder to find today.

At the moment, I’m working on Chopin’s 3rd Piano Sonata [in B-, Op.58], where the last movement [Presto, ma non tanto] begins with a slow 8-bar introduction, as a transition from the preceding movement [Largo]; but in his recording, Moiseiwitsch actually leaves it out! This is the kind of thing that most modern pianists would never consider doing. I imagine that perhaps one evening at home he was playing through the Sonata, and it just happened – and he thought, “Well, this works rather well.” I tried this in a concert once, and someone said to me afterwards, “Where were the first 8 bars of the last movement?” I responded, “I though I’d leave them out; I heard Moiseiwitsch do it, and I thought was very effective.” And he said, “Yes, but they could do things like that back then; we shouldn’t do such things now.” It seems to me that performers today should be bold enough to take liberties with the music if they have good reason – just as pianists of the past did; if this were to happen, I think music performances would become more varied and more interesting.

NG: I think that's a very healthy perspective. And you're absolutely right – we do have such a sacrosanct approach today in performing classical music, that just because it’s written down it has a kind of “biblical” quality and can’t be tampered with. This is quite different from how we approach jazz or pop music, where the interpreters have considerable freedom in how they approach the music. So, have such comments as you received thrown you back a bit, or are you going to continue to leave out the introduction in the Chopin?

BG: Yes, I might consider it, because apart from Moiseiwitsch, I’ve never heard anyone do it – and it might be interesting to make people once again aware of this possibility. The 3rd movement fades away to nothing, and it’s quite effective to begin again as from nothing [at the actual Presto], as opposed to the explosive chords of the introduction.

NG: We’ve spoken about the importance of communicating emotion to the listener, and perhaps indeed that’s the more effective approach. Well, it will be interesting to follow your path on that – we’ll have to see how bold you and the folks at Decca are if you decide to record it.

As we wind down here, let’s touch a bit more on your overall thoughts on repertoire. It’s clear from your recordings and concerts to date, that your main focus has been the music of the mid-late 19th century – Chopin, Grieg, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Liszt, Albéniz; with a bit of dabbling in the Baroque – a couple of sonatas by [Domenico] Scarlatti, and the early Modern era – with Ravel and Gershwin. Yet, I’ve read of your recent plans to broaden your palette, with work on the 4th Partita [in D, BWV828] of J.S. Bach, as well as works from the Classical era by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Can you elaborate a bit about your plans going forward?

BG: You're quite right in saying that music of the Romantic era is really what I’ve been attracted to from a young age – it’s where I’ve felt most comfortable. And it’s true that just fairly recently, I’ve begun investigating other areas: this past September I had a program with Bach’s 4th Partita and Beethoven Piano Sonata [No.30 in E], Op.109 in the first half. It was the first Bach that I’d performed publically, and the first late Beethoven sonata I’d ever played. So that was very helpful in broadening my horizons as a musician. And I’ll be continuing to do that.

Another area I’ve been investigating – particularly at the Royal Academy – is chamber music. It’s something I’ve just started doing, and it really appeals to me: the intimacy of that interaction with other musicians. It was through chamber music that I gave my first performances of both Schubert and Brahms, and I was lucky enough to be joined by some very experienced chamber players. This was very helpful in my first steps with these composers, and I envision continuing to do more in this area.

NG: It’s such a happy thing that with the great skills you already possess, you’ve got so much great literature still yet to explore. Have you begun to think about what your next recording might be – or is that a well-kept secret?

BG: I’ll actually be starting to record my next album very soon – it’s a concerto disc. It will feature the Ravel Piano Concerto [in G].

NG: I’m not surprised about that; and especially about the Ravel – which is a piece with a very important role in your own career: it’s the concerto with which you won the BBC Young Musician competition – right?

BG: Yes, that's right, I played it in the finals; it was the first time I played it with a professional orchestra, and so, yes, it has a lot of personal significance for me. Then, in addition to the Ravel, the album will contain the 2nd Piano Concerto [in G-, Op.22] by Saint-Saëns and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

NG: That sounds terrific – and an interesting juxtaposition of Ravel, Gershwin and Saint-Saëns. I know that you recorded some Gershwin also on your first solo disc, called This and That [from 2010, on the independent Galton Concert label]; this same album also has a couple of pieces by the little-known contemporary Russian composer Nicolai Kapustin – namely, three of his Jazz Etudes. These have plenty of wonderful jazz harmonies and syncopated rhythms – so are you generally a fan of jazz music, and how specifically did you come to record these pieces by Kapustin?

BG: I've always loved playing music within the jazz medium; I'd like to be able to improvise jazz myself, but unfortunately my skills aren't quite good enough for that.

NG: Not yet, anyway.

BG: Sure – I mean, it's something I could practice, I suppose; but I don't think that I'll ever be very good at it. However, I really started appreciating that medium when, at a very young age, I began learning pieces by the British composer, Billy Mayerl – pieces in the kind of light jazz style that I really liked; I was actually the youngest member of the Billy Mayerl Society – and the next oldest was a few decades my senior [laughs]. From that time I became interest in jazz, and then I began playing Gershwin. I discovered Kapustin after I read about him in a music magazine; I bought some recordings of his music by [Canadian pianist] Marc-André Hamelin and I really liked them. I picked three of his Jazz Concert Etudes [Op.40], and decided to record them; it’s wonderful music – it sounds like improvised jazz, but everything is worked out within a classical form. And it’s very fun to play.

NG: I’ve heard those recordings of Kapustin you made, and you have a great feel for the jazz-classical mélange; and I’m sure it will be the same with Rhapsody in Blue.

I see that you have a big North American tour starting next week, both recital- and concerto-oriented, before you come back to Europe – including some performances with the poetically-named Orchestra of the Swan [in Shakespeare’s hometown of Stratford-Upon-Avon], with which you have a partnership. So, we’ll have to see if you get mobbed here in the States by swooning girls – like an earlier British invasion.

BG: I doubt it [laughs]!

NG: Well, thank you Benjamin, it's been great talking with you. Congratulations on all your great success, and best of luck going forward.

BG: Thank you very much.

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