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 Recording of the Week  Benjamin Grosvenor - Dances

The young British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor is that comparatively rare thing, an erstwhile child prodigy who has developed into an artist of serious integrity and originality under his own steam and been allowed to remain relatively out of the spotlight whilst doing so. The grainy YouTube footage of him stunning the BBC Young Musician of the Year jury in 2004 with a supremely sassy, bluesy account of the Ravel Piano Concerto, despite being almost too small to reach the pedals, remains quite astonishing a decade later. He was only 11 at the time. Ten years on, his latest solo disc, Dances, is so mesmerising from the opening bars that it had me glued to my desk for three hours whilst I listened on loop, eagerly conscripting my various colleagues as they returned from lunch and meetings.

Benjamin Grosvenor
Benjamin Grosvenor

Still just 22 (and two years into a solo recording contract with Decca), Grosvenor plays with a conviction, authority and imagination which is almost uncanny in such a young artist, and which is all the more striking when contrasted with the unworldly, bashful manner which comes across in interviews. One of the most jaw-dropping (and moving) live performances I’ve witnessed in recent years occurred back in 2012, when Grosvenor was awarded the Young Artist of the Year prize at the Gramophone Awards: having already won the pre-announced Instrumental Category and accepted the award with a nervy prepared speech, the young pianist was visibly taken aback to receive an unexpected second honour and haltingly informed his audience that he wasn’t up to improvising another speech. Instead, he wandered over to the piano next to the stage and stunned the assembled company with an uproarious, virtuosic two-minute showpiece which owed not a little to Jerry Lee Lewis’s Great Balls of Fire and Liberace, and which brought the entire audience to their feet as the room erupted with roars of applause not often heard at such events. Job done, Grosvenor bowed diffidently and scuttled straight back to his seat, his self-effacing manner the polar opposite of the extrovert, assured display we’d just witnessed. The work in question, Morton Gould’s Boogie—Woogie Etude, provides a delightfully unbuttoned, exuberant coda to a disc which I’m certain will garner a slew of award nominations and crop up on many Discs of the Year features some four months hence – it’ll certainly be heading up mine.

Spanning Bach and Gould (and taking in Chopin, Granados, Scriabin, and Albeniz along the way), Dances is based on a programme which Grosvenor performed for his Southbank Centre debut in 2012 to great acclaim: whether in sarabandes, gigues, tangos or waltzes, his playing exudes a buoyance and clarity which really does dance. Everything is consummately classy and eloquent, but nothing is cerebral or micro-managed (as some slight criticisms of that 2012 recital suggested) – and whilst Grosvenor seems incapable of showboating or otherwise indulging in the flashy gestures of some of his contemporaries, he’s never shy of unleashing the big guns when the music calls for it (for instance in the Chopin Grand Polonaise brillante, and some of the Scriabin mazurkas) or of embracing the sugar-plum schmaltz of Adolf Schulz-Evler’s transcription of the Blue Danube Waltzes.

This is an awe-inspiring, simply joyous programme which is much more than a Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (though it is that too): Grosvenor is already a supremely confident, individual musician with technique to burn and plenty to say, though he never gets in the way of the music. Mark my words, this one will be garlanded with awards in the coming months – and, more importantly, will bring countless hours of pleasure.

Benjamin Grosvenor : Dances

Benjamin Grosvenor (piano) (Download not available in all countries)

Available Format: CD