One of the most formidable pianists of his generation
Town Hall & Frick Collection
12/01/2019 - & December 15*, 2019
December 1, 2019, Town Hall
Robert Schumann: Blumenstück, opus19 – Kreisleriana, opus 16
Leos Janácek: Piano Sonata “Oct.1, 1905”
Sergei Prokofiev: Selections from Visions fugitives, opus 22
Franz Liszt: Réminiscences de “Norma”
Benjamin Grosvenor (piano)
December 15, 2019, Frick Collection
Karol Szymanowski: Mythes, opus 30
Maurice Ravel: Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 2 in G Major
Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata for Piano and Violin in A Major “Kreutzer”, opus 47
Hyeyoon Park (violin), Benjamin Grosvenor (piano)
B. Grosvenor, H. Park (© Arts Managment Group)
Since his debut in 2012 at the Frick Collection, the British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor has become quite a frequent guest in New York concert venues both as a soloist, playing with orchestra and appearing with the musicians of the NY Philharmonic. This December alone he performed in New York twice: first in a solo recital, then two weeks later he returned to the Frick Collection in a duo-recital with Korean violinist Hyeyoon Park.
That he is a formidable virtuoso we were already able to assess during several of his solo performances and that last one, in the Salomon Series of the People’s Symphony Concerts, only further cemented his position as one of the most formidable pianists of his generation (he was born in 1992). At Town Hall he played for us a diverse program of Schumann, Janácek, Prokofiev and Liszt. The first half of his recital was devoted to Schumann. The Blumenstück (“Flower piece”) is, in Schumann’s own words, a short set of “variations, but not on a theme”. The work is made up of five numbered sections in several keys in which themes recur in different guises. The juxtaposition of closely related keys, and the subtle thematic changes bring to mind the similar and yet unique shapes of petals in a flower. Schumann named the eight pieces of Kreisleriana “Phantasien für das Pianoforte” and wrote it in record time (just a few days) in April 1838. It owes its title to the Kapellmeister Kreisler from the writings of E.T.A. Hoffmann. Just as Kreisler was the medium for Hoffmann’s expression, so he became the emissary of Schumann’s sufferings. At no other time did the composer reach such depths of introspection and poetic utterance, couching the exposed emotions within a framework of bustling activity. As in the preceding cycle Carnaval, the eight pieces form a balanced entity and cannot successfully be played out of the context of the work. With the exception of the seventh piece marked Sehr rasch (very fast), the whole work is permeated by a musical theme, upright or inverted, which is associated with Clara Wieck, then still a few years prior to their marriage. The reappearing theme is alluded to in a letter Schumann wrote to Clara: “...since my last letter I’ve done a whole book of things. I want to call it Kreisleriana. You and one of your thoughts play the leading role there, and I wish to dedicate it to you – yes, to you and nobody else. You will smile when you discover yourself there”. Indeed, some of the pages of Kreisleriana betray a desperate love, but under the infallible fingers of Mr. Grosvenor it was a tight lipped love. It was dispatched effortlessly and with simplicity and I appreciated the uninterrupted flow of music, yet but both works seemed a little detached and short on passion for my taste.
I thought that our pianist showed himself to better effect in the second half of the recital which featured the turbulent Piano Sonata “Oct. 1, 1905” by Janácek, a large selection of Visions fugitives by Prokofiev (played out of the original order) and finally one of the calling cards of our young virtuoso: Liszt’s Réminiscences de “Norma”. In the Prokofiev, I loved Grosvenor’s approach to these miniatures and his varied touch: sometimes his sound could be caressing – at other times sharp, pointed, angular and clear. He was able, in a masterful manner, to seize the capricious character of those vignettes, some of which take only a few seconds to perform. To my ears it was by far one of the best renditions of that work that I ever heard live or on record. Yet it was still toppled by the pyrotechnics and astonishing virtuosity and panache that our soloist displayed in the Liszt paraphrase, built on a several themes from the Bellini opera, and in the coda we hear a several themes combined: we almost could believe that the pianist would require at least three hands to negotiate all the runs, jumps, chords and vocal tunes that are weaved into the rich texture.
The enthusiastic audience was able to get but one encore, another Liszt piece, the Concert Etude Gnomenreigen played again with a total disregard for its difficulties and the utmost lightness and speed.
Grosvenor and his violinist-girlfriend Hyeyoon Park offered an exciting program at the venerable Frick Collection, which will, this summer after over eight decades, close its doors for renovation/rebuilding and we will never again hear the concerts at the smallish, circular room where starting in 1938, N.Y. audiences heard some of the greatest soloists and chamber music groups of the day.
The first half of the recital featured two works which were written by the pianists who, in their own way, revolutionized piano writing and who solicited advice from their violinist friends. The Polish composer Szymanowski worked closely with famous virtuoso Paul Kochanski and thus dedicated the majority of his works for violin and piano to him. Ravel found his helper in person of Mme Jourdan-Morhange, who became his guide to the subtleties of violin expression. His Sonata, or as it is known today as the Sonata No. 2 (1923-27), was written with her in mind and dedicated to her. When he had scarcely begun composition, he wrote to her “it won’t be very difficult and it won’t sprain your wrist”. As it turned out, the sonata IS difficult, especially in the exhausting last movement Moto perpetuo and its dedicatee, for several reasons, was never able to play it, unlike Kochanski, who made the Myths popular on both sides of the ocean.
It was a wonderful idea for the duo to program all three of the Myths, or “Trois poèmes pour violon et piano” rather than only its most popular segment “La Fontaine d’Aréthuse.” In this triptych, Szymanowski is still within his oriental-impressionism period and shows much improvisatory freedom coupled with a new, ground-breaking language for both instruments. These pieces, similar to the piano triptych Métopes, were inspired by the composer’s love for classical antiquity and his trips to Greece and Italy. And unlike Ravel, whose work on the Sonata took him several years, Szymanowski was able to accomplish his enormous task of writing both the Myths and the First Violin Concerto in a matter of just eight weeks. Whereas Ravel uses more conventional, traditional means of expression, Szymanowski uses in his Myths a whole gamut of devices such as sul ponticello, harmonics, which are most prominently featured in the last segment “Dryades et Pan,” col legno and even quarter-tones. He applies innovative musical devices relating to sound but the music remains easy to follow.
Ms. Park captured beautifully the languid melancholy of the waterplay and her partner showed unusually refined, soft touch and sensitivity in the difficult piano writing. They were both able to create the most sublime effects from the most delicate to feverish and played with utmost expressivity. It was prudent of the presenters to let Mr. Grosvenor play not on the customary concert grand piano, but rather on bit smaller Steinway B: in this very vibrant, resonant venue the piano is often able to overpower string instruments, but here the pianist didn’t need to worry about the proper balance because Ms. Park possesses not only dead-center intonation but presents a strong, lush, luxuriant sound.
In the Ravel Sonata there was a nice interplay of the two instruments and although the violin was often the leading voice, the piano was never subservient. Ravel was adamant that the two featured instruments are not well-suited to one another, yet in the sonata he seemed to find a good tonal balance. In the middle movement “Blues,” Ravel drew from an esteemed tradition, for several works of Debussy, Satie and Milhaud successfully incorporated popular music into a classical framework. He would again come back to the jazzy mood in his Piano Concerto in G Major. And when the last, wrist-numbing Moto perpetuo arrived, Ms. Park had a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate her infallible bow-arm and pliancy bringing this tour-de-force finale to a rousing conclusion.
The second half of the Park-Grosvenor recital was devoted to a single work, Beethoven’s most formidable and longest sonata for piano and violin, known as the Kreutzer. This is the only sonata – regardless for what combination of instruments or solo – that bares a title “Sonata per il Pianoforte ed un Violino obligato in uno stilo brillante molto Concertante quasi come d’un Concerto”. A pretty elaborate description, indicating that it is a brilliant work, a duo-sonata giving both instruments the bigness of line, brilliance of effect and richness of sound that was customary associated with the concerto.
And both of our artists delivered a virtuoso, energetic and involved performance, technically superb with an impressive, treacherous violin solo opening this time again played with dead-center intonation. There were moments in the first movement when the piano entered too soon, before the violinist finished her phrase, but since it happened twice I have to presume that for some reason it was intentional. Similar to the performance of Schumann’s Kreisleriana in the aforementioned Frick recital, I heard technical excellence and brilliance but not much of emotion and that bothered me a bit especially in the second movement Andante con variazioni. Minor reservations aside, it was a fabulously played interpretation which in all probability will deepen with time.
There were two encores: Schumann’s Abendlied(“Evening song”) and the Brahms Hungarian Dance No. 2, in which the violinist avoided slipping too much into the traditional vulgarity that often appears to be a salient feature of violinists who attempt to interpret it more than it needs to be.