Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?
My mother studied piano and has taught piano all of her adult life. Her father has also played the piano since childhood, and has a keen interest in music, so any musical inclination comes from my mother’s side. There was always a lot of music in our house. My brothers all played something, though none of them persevered past their early teens – unfortunately I missed out on the opportunity to play in any kind of family band. Past that point there were also the sounds of more modern genres coming from different parts of the house. I was first introduced to the piano aged five but at first didn’t really take to it, even though it seems there were things I could do without needing much instruction. About a year later, I found that some school friends had begun regular piano lessons. I didn’t like the idea of their being better than me, so from that point I started to take it more seriously! As I moved onto more challenging works, and to those by the great composers, I really felt a strong connection to music, and it was only a few years later that I realised that I wanted to be a musician.
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
My mother was my first teacher. She realised quite early that I needed additional guidance and, age 9, I also began to have lessons with Hilary Coates, and then soon after with Hilary’s husband, Christopher Elton, who is professor of piano (and at the time Head of Keyboard) at the Royal Academy of Music. Hilary helped to focus and fine tune my technical development in those early stages, and Christopher guided me musically through my teens and into adulthood.
My first inspirations among other artists were some of those whose recordings were in our collection – pianists like Horowitz, Argerich and Rubinstein. I recall at that time being particularly inspired by listening to Rubinstein playing Chopin – in particular his carrying of a cantabile melody mesmerised me. In my early teens, I became interested in the playing of other pianists born or active in the first half of the century – Cortot, Rosenthal, Friedman, Edwin Fischer, Feinberg, Schnabel amongst others – and found in their playing particular aesthetics, ideas and inspiration to inform and enrich my own approach. I also became interested in other historical performers. Wilhelm Furtwängler’s conducting was a particular inspiration – the wholly ‘organic’ way in which he applied often acute agogics, always maintaining fluidity, was remarkable, as was the depth of the sonority he drew from the string sections.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
After the success in the BBC Young Musician Competition when I was 11, there was some pressure to become a full-time performer, but I’m glad that my parents and I resisted this, retaining two periods of a month each year in which I’d give concerts, but with the majority of my time reserved for music lessons and my wider education. However, the transition from this pattern to performing more or less the whole year round in my late teens was a challenge. I’d been used to the luxury of having relatively long periods for preparation and only playing one or two concerti and one recital programme each season. The need to have a good deal more repertoire on the go at any given time meant I needed to make changes to my preparation regime. It was tough at the outset of having to make these adjustments, but I managed to soldier through this period and realised that this was very much part of being a concert pianist.
Which particular works do you feel you play best?
I can’t answer this directly because I don’t think about works in quite this way. Rather, I look at repertoire to which I feel a genuine connection (above all on an emotional level). This could be a work by Couperin from the early Baroque or, as with this coming season, the Berg Sonata. The question of whether a particular performance is any good or not is a separate issue, but I don’t personally feel that I’m best in, say, a given composer or period.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
I enjoy variety from one season to the next – while also striving to expand my musical horizons over time – and similarly within programmes. I can listen with pleasure to a recital of three Schubert sonatas, say, but I know that this kind of programming is not for me as a performer. Perhaps I could flesh out my approach using this season’s programme as an example. I enjoyed greatly playing Bach’s 4th Partita five years ago and wanted to play another of the suites, choosing the fifth French Suite which is one of my favourites. I was considering programming Brahms op.119 – having performed a number of the chamber works and his 1st Piano Concerto I wanted now to explore some later works – when Brett Dean sent me his pieces Hommage à Brahms, written for Emmanuel Ax as interludes between each of the four Brahms Op.119 works. I thought it was very effective as a set, with the Dean pieces providing illuminating contrasts to the Brahms, and that it was fascinating to have this juxtaposition of old and new.
I have felt close to Berg’s music since performing some of his songs during my Royal Academy days. I also relished getting to know his violin concerto by reading it through with a friend who was preparing it. I love this rich and dense harmonic world, with its tonal ambiguity, whole-tone scales and chromaticism. I think it is fascinating to consider that Debussy’s Prélude à l’apres midi d’un faune was written just a year after the Brahms op.119, and it is an ideal preface to the Berg sonata – Pierre Boulez called Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune the beginning of modern music. Debussy had used whole-tone scales and also unstable tonality, evoking atmospheres in sound that had not been known in Western music until that time. Of course, Debussy’s work is for orchestra… However, Debussy’s champion and friend George Copeland had made a transcription for piano, as had Leonard Borwick. There is a telling quote from Copeland about his arrangement: “I spoke to [Debussy] of my desire to transcribe some of his orchestral things for the piano — music which I felt to be essentially pianistic. He was at first sceptical, but finally agreed, and was in complete accord with the result. He was particularly delighted with my piano version of L’après-midi d’un faune, agreeing with me that in the orchestral rendering, which called for different instruments, the continuity of the procession of episodes was disturbed. This has always seems to me the loveliest, the most remote and essentially Debussyan, of all his music, possessing, as it does, a terrible antiquity, translating into sound a voluptuous sense that is in no wise physical.” Everyone knows this work and the orchestral original is indelibly imprinted. I suppose the wanton challenge of playing a piano transcription thus appealed to me all the more… In the end, I felt that Borwick’s was more effective in many sections (Copeland could be somewhat sketchy), so what I’m playing is mostly Borwick, with some bars from Copeland and some of my own. I’m ending the programme with Gaspard. I’d played and recorded this in my late teens, but I love this music and felt it was time to return to it.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
Although the acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall is not a friendly one for piano (it is cavernous and projection will always be an issue), I particularly enjoy the atmosphere at the Proms. The audience is so responsive, yet they are so very quiet before you start playing. It’s hard to think of another venue where one can so immediately feel the response of audience members.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
It would be difficult to pick out one…but if I had to I might pick out the Proms once again! I have been lucky enough to have played both on the First and Last nights, which are both unique events. Certainly for my first Proms experience as a performer, playing Liszt 2 on the first night was very memorable indeed.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
I’m sure whole books could be written on the subject of how to define success in music! For me, having given a performance that seems to have been genuinely appreciated by colleagues brings what most feels like ‘success’. This is one of the reasons I am increasingly drawn to chamber music. It’s lovely if a conductor or the leader of an orchestra says something truly complimentary after a concerto, for example, but playing with a handful of colleagues and finding during the performance and afterwards that we seemed all to be firing off one another’s imagination and involvement is a wonderful feeling.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
I don’t feel qualified to give any general answer, not least as I sense that each person needs to find his or her way of connecting deeply to music. It could be that a promising young musician listens to the most magical (to me) performance of a Chopin Nocturne and is not particularly moved, but is shaken to the core by the last movement of Mahler 6. I don’t want to sound in the least didactic but I have the feeling that seeking that deep connection – via whichever route works best – is the necessary starting point. After that, ideas and concepts will begin much more easily to fall into place.
British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor is internationally recognized for his electrifying performances and insightful interpretations. His virtuosic command over the most strenuous technical complexities underpins the remarkable depth and understanding of his musicianship. Benjamin is renowned for his distinctive sound, described as ‘poetic and gently ironic, brilliant yet clear-minded, intelligent but not without humour, all translated through a beautifully clear and singing touch’ (The Independent), and making him one of the most sought-after young pianists in the world.
Benjamin first came to prominence as the outstanding winner of the Keyboard Final of the 2004 BBC Young Musician Competition at the age of eleven, and he was invited to perform with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the First Night of the 2011 BBC Proms at just nineteen. Since then, he has become an internationally regarded pianist and was announced in 2016 as the inaugural recipient of The Ronnie and Lawrence Ackman Classical Piano Prize with the New York Philharmonic. As part of this he returns to New York in April 2018, performing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 under the baton of Esa-Pekka Salonen as well as chamber music with members of the orchestra at the Tisch Center for the Arts at 92nd Street Y.
(photo: Patrick Allen/Opera Omnia)