English profiles

Arnhem, 2 November 2016

I managed to interview Benjamin Grosvenor while he was having lunch. A candid conversation with a serious, young artist who seems to have been around for a long time already....

Willem Boone (WB): I’d like to quote the composer Gustav Mahler who once said: “The most important is not in the notes”, do you agree with this?

Benjamin Grosvenor (BG): You can play perfectly, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that you transmit something. It’s not the notes, but it’s about the spaces in between. 

WB: If it’s not in the notes, then what is the most important and where is it to be found?

BG: It’s difficult to find: music communicates a lot of emotions and gestures. Even Beethoven said: “Wrong notes don’t matter, it’s not a crime!” 

WB: Can musicality be learnt?

BG: Difficult to say, I don’t have experience as a teacher, but there is something innate other people don’t have, a degree of responsiveness to music. 

WB: I saw a film on YouTube when you where you were 12 or 13 years of age, playing The Lark by Glinka and everything was already there. Is that indeed a sign that it cannot be learnt?

BG: Some people have it, others don’t! Some people have a seed, you can blossom it. 

WB: Is technique something that can be learnt as opposed to musicality?

BG: Technique is about mechanics and physics, it’s easier to sort out technical problems and it’s also easier for a teacher to teach technique..

WB: In a German review, I read: “Wunderkind wird erwachsen”, i.e. “prodigy is becoming an adult”, is that what you’d like to be referred to?

BG: I don’t know, I am often asked about it, I was very young when I started. At the time, I was striving for the same standard as nowadays. 

WB: In a few recent reviews (Financial Times, October 2016), I read: “A virtuoso of a rare kind, poetic, whimsical, an old fashioned romantic” or “A fabulous representative of the expressive old school who just happens to be one of our finest pianists”(BBC Radio 3, October 2016), or, again, “.. reminds of the young Joseph Hofman or Friedman”. How important is the old school to you?

BG: I don’t know, it’s a flattering description.

WB: “Whimsical”, doesn’t that sound negative in English?

BG: It depends on the playing, there are pieces that are whimsical, e.g. the excerpts from Goyescas by Granados that I will play tonight, you could call them whimsical. It can also have the meaning of “free spirited” or “imaginative”. I don’t know what these critics are hearing, it’s difficult to assess your own playing and to see your good qualities. Further to your question, yes, I am interested in the pianists of the past. 

WB: You mean in Hofman and Friedman?

BG: Yes, definitely, but also in Cortot, Rachmaninov, Michelangeli, they were all very individual artists.

WB: You sometimes remind me of Shura Cherkassky, also in terms of repertoire, e.g the schöne blaue Donau by Schulz Evler or the Boogie woogie Etude by Morton Gould.

BG: I love him, he was a wonderful, amazing colourist with a lot of imagination. Conductors hated him, because he was not easy to follow..

WB: No, and he said “I’ll play differently tonight” when conductors were nervous!

WB: You said a pianist can quietly use his imagination, to what extent?

BG: It’s a question of integrity, you have to respect the music of course. Some artists are too personal. You have to serve the music in the best possible way. Jorge Bolet said in this respect that a performer lives with a composition for the rest of his life, whereas a composer wrote it in three weeks. The artist has the desire to serve, communicate and generate the best. The personality of an interpreter is inescapable, but you should never be different for the sake of it.

WB: I heard your colleague Jorge Luis Prats the other day in Amsterdam, he played the complete Iberia suite by Albeniz and I noticed he often didn’t respect the dynamics that you can find in the score, e.g. he played “forte” where the score asks for “piano”!

BG: The best answer is Rachmaninov in his recording of Chopin’s Second sonata, he reverses the dynamics in the Funeral March. Nobody would dare to copy it, but he executes it to perfection. It depends on what the idea is. Rachmaninov was a performer with a touch of genius who equalled the composer.

WB: Jorge Bolet one said if you respect the score too much you could become “pedantic”, what do you think?

BG: Rachmaninov played his own pieces differently each time and Bolet heard him a few times live I believe. They both lived in an era when there was so much room for improvisation. Liszt and Chopin also played in an improvisatory way, I wonder what they would think of our obsession with scores.

WB: Are we obsessed?

BG: It’s a shame to limit ourselves, playing differently doesn’t mean disregard of music, but it always has to be for a good reason. 

WB: Is the score the bible for you?

BG: Music is fluid, it’s different with each performance, that’s so wonderful about it!

WB: The programme of your recital tonight as well as your cd’s are multi-faceted. Is that because you don’t want to focus or specialize?

BG: I like varied programmes and have no desire to specialize, which is probably harder than playing Beethoven sonatas. You have to be a chameleon with a programme like tonight’s one. The piano repertoire is so huge! 

WB: How do you compose a recital like tonight’s programme: do you need a “culmination point” as Rachmaninov called it or do you choose spontaneously the way Sokolov does?

BG: You mean a climax? Chopin in his Second sonata works towards the Funeral March. The last movement of this sonata is bizarre, it’s like a nightmare. I don’t think Chopin wanted us to understand.. there is a sense of terror and it’s gone in a moment. The Liszt at the end is a powerful piece. Rubinstein said about recital programmes that the first half should be more classical, whereas the second half should be exotic or coloristic repertoire.

WB: Does there always have to be an effective piece at the end?

BG: I suppose I do end with a bang, with encores you can control the mood with which you want to finish the concert.

WB: Your colleague Grigori Sokolov said he sometimes doesn’t know why he programmes certain pieces, he just “ends up playing them” and he can’t always tell in advance what it is going to be..

BG: When you have his stature, you can afford to announce your programmes very late, but yes, it happens that you hear something and that you think: “That’s interesting”. The difficulty is that there are so many things I want to play! 

WB: As to tonight’s programme, why do you start with this Mozart sonata (K 333)?

BG: It’s like a concerto without orchestra, you can imagine how Mozart would orchestrate it. It’s also an operatic piece, it’s complex in character. 

WB: Regarding Chopin’s Second sonata that you already mentioned, Schumann said these were “four children who don’t belong together”. Do you see it as a coherent masterpiece?

BG: The third sonata seems to hang together better. There is something odd about the Second sonata, Chopin wrote the Funeral March first and the entire sonata works towards the third movement. 

WB: How should the finale be played? With a lot of pedal or in a dry way?

BG: In a soft way and legato, maybe for the entire movement , there are few markings in the score. It’s very bare, maybe Chopin doesn’t want us to understand. 

WB: Is it true that you have to repeat the Grave as well? It is supposed to be indicated in the score and Maurizio Pollini plays it in his second recording, Uchida did the same when she played it live.

BG: There is a long standing and fascinating debate about this,  and perhaps Charles Rosen best explains the case for the repeat of the first bars of the work.  Most modern editions do not address this issue,  and so it is only recently that I have become aware of it

WB: And I thought the reprise of the Funeral March should be played piano, but Guiomar Novaes and Nelson Freire play forte..

BG: Rachmaninov does the same in his recording!

WB: You play some early Scriabin tonight, do you also play his late works?

BG: Yes, but I haven’t played many of them. He is very interesting in the way he progresses. In the Mazurkas the influence of Chopin is apparent. I haven’t played any of the late sonatas, but I would like to.

WB: You include a few of Granados’s Goyescas, why do you want to include them?

BG: His music is improvisation-like, what makes it difficult. The keys change all the time, therefore it is very hard to memorize. It’s tonal music, but both harmonically and contrapuntally, it’s very difficult. I played a few of the Goyescas and I would like to play all of them.

WB: Is the rhythm the most difficult?

BG: You have to be very free, yet not sloppy!

WB: You also play repertoire that is not very often played, like the Mendelssohn Preludes and Fugues opus 35 or Medtner. Are there any less known compositions you would like to play?

BG: Many things, for instance Mompou, whom I play sometimes as an encore. He is completely unique. Next season, I will play Debussy, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune.

WB: For piano solo?

BG: Yes, it was arranged by Copeland, he had Debussy’s blessing!

WB: Which pianist, dead or alive, you would travel very far for?

BG: Among the dead pianists, many, for instance Kempff and Cortot, I know them so well from their recordings, I would jump at any opportunity to hear them, among the living pianists Sokolov, but he doesn’t come to the UK any more. I never heard Lupu either, I heard Argerich only once and would like to hear her again. 

WB: Is there a composer you would have loved to play for and one you would dread?

BG: I don’t know really.. Any composer would be fascinating and daunting. I’d be terrified of all of them!

WB: How satisfied are you after a performance?

BG: There is always “something”, never in the sense of: “That was awful”, sometimes I think: “That was pretty good!”

WB: Does it happen that something doesn’t go well but goes really well the next day?

BG: Yes, you try to improve on things. There are also details that went better the last day. There are many factors, a lot depends on your mood and on how tired you are.