The British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor arrived at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater on Tuesday night for a Washington Performing Arts Society recital attended by a mantle of success; his previous appearance here two years ago, and even his Wolf Trap performance with the National Symphony Orchestra last summer, supported the general advance scouting reports that he was young and very, very good.
He took the stage with a businesslike air that made neither apparent. He looked older than his 21 years, and he played with an understated competence that, in the first couple of pieces (Mendelssohn’s Op. 14 Andante and Rondo Capriccioso in E and Schubert’s famous G-flat Impromptu), impressed more for its technical proficiency and accuracy than with its transcendence.
But one of the points of the evening is that music is about more than first impressions. It’s open to debate whether you could brand the slight callowness of his Mendelssohn and Schubert as “room to grow,” or just a warming-up phase in a recital by a performer who approaches music with consummate tact. Grosvenor is not a player who comes out with the intention of establishing his individuality — not obviously, at least. His recital revealed its charms little by little, intensifying its pleasures with each piece and the contrasts it offered to what had gone before it, staking out ever more terrain on the musical spectrum and showing ever more mastery.
It began to take hold with Schumann’s B-flat Humoreske, a piece of typically Schumannian contrasts and episodes that Grosvenor delineated with precision and individuality. His remarkable control was clear from the first, multipartite movement — if you can call any section of this grab-bag of musical incidents a “movement” — with nuances of variation in his phrasing and dynamics, and his ability to play a phrase the same way twice. This degree of technical control also gave an anchor, a kind of through line, to music that is notoriously hard to pin down.
The first-half of the program established a solid foundation; the second half built on it with excursions increasingly far afield. Grosvenor contrasted two different takes on sophisticated straightforwardness with Federico Mompou’s “Paisajas,” a collection of three evocative landscapes, and two of Nikolai Medtner’s “Fairy Tales” (Op. 31, No. 3 and Op. 14, No 2). The Mompou is music of a soft, limpid simplicity; the Medtner pieces are about forward narrative motion and glittering appeal; and Grosvenor brought out the high points of both, unobtrusively.
Having established his ability to make poetic pieces such as the Mompou shine, he moved into straight-out virtuoso territory as if to remove any questions about his abilities on that front. Ravel’s “Valses nobles et sentimentales” sparkled and sprang and crouched and leapt across the keys, followed by — what else? — a Liszt finale, his “Valse de l’opéra Faust,” based on Gounod’s opera, in which the gentleness of Marguerite and earthiness of Faust’s sensual pleasures took flight in cascades of thundering fingerwork. Having basically accelerated the whole recital, offering more and more color and intensity the longer he played, he had almost no choice but to offer two sparkling, rapid-fire encores, Abram Chasins’s “Rush Hour in Hong Kong” and a Capriccio from Erno Dohnanyi’s Etudes de Concert. However flashily he played, he remained businesslike in his manner, and retreated quickly after the final encore, despite the eager applause.