Pianist Benjamin Grosvenor offers depth at Kennedy Center

When Benjamin Grosvenor won the keyboard award at the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition in 2004, he was all of 11 years old. Grosvenor has gone on to give recitals and concerto appearances, and he had the distinction of opening the Proms in London last summer. Local listeners had their chance to hear him Saturday afternoon, when he became one of the youngest performers on Washington Performing Arts Society’s Hayes Piano Series, at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater.

It was a prodigious debut, marked in equal parts by Grosvenor’s outstanding technical accomplishment and his interpretive depth. One could quibble about his approach, but he had strong ideas and he stuck to them. Bach’s Fourth Partita was exhilarating in the fast movements, especially the rushed contrapuntal section of the overture and a precise, even fussy gigue. The allemande oozed along, with a heavy foot on the pedal and little wisps of pastel in the fast-note decoration, while the sarabande did not seem as slow.

(Sussie Ahlburg/Hazard Chase Limited) - British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor became one of the youngest performers on Washington Performing Arts Society’s Hayes Piano Series.

Chopin’s Third Sonata seemed the most empty, the vivacious scherzo movement produced as if on a demonic player piano with the tempo dial at maximum but lacking a luscious legato touch in the largo. Scriabin’s Second Sonata had much the same sound, just on a smaller scale, and a Rachmaninoff set showed Grosvenor’s theatrical side, in the dazzling triplet chords of the Op. 39, No. 5 etude-tableau; the tooth-rotting treacle of “Lilacs”; and the circus-act dazzle of “Polka de W. R.”

The apex was an astounding rendition of Ravel’s “Gaspard de la nuit,” which also ends Grosvenor’s debut CD on the Decca label. Many young pianists program this notoriously difficult work to certify their technical bona fides, but few do so with such panache and coloristic subtlety: the exquisitely transparent right-hand figuration of “Ondine,” the craftsmanship of sound around the clanging bell note of “Le Gibet,” the devilish intensity and volcanic shifts of loud and soft in “Scarbo.” Grosvenor then outdid even Yuja Wang in the outrageous encore department, with an “A Capitol Fourth”-size rendition of ­Horowitz’s barnstorming arrangement of Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” followed by a poetic Prelude No. 14 by American composer Abram Chasins.

Downey is a freelance writer.

 
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