SCHENECTADY — British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor returned Sunday afternoon to the Union College Concert Series after a two-year absence to give a thrilling display of virtuosity, and he's only 24. The concert was the first stop on a two-week North American tour.
Grosvenor has always had an effortless, fluid and clean technique but, in the balanced and interesting program that he presented, he showed a probing musicianship that enlivened and colored everything. Equally impressive was the control he had over the ebb and flow of the dynamic levels and how subtly he shifted his touch to suit the musical or even pictorial demands.
He began with J.S. Bach's "French Suite No. 5 in G Major." Throughout the seven sections, his touch was tender, his phrasing was thoughtful, lovely and highly nuanced. The fast sections had vigor and splash, especially the perky Gavotte and the bold and exuberant final Gigue.
The set of three of Brahms' Intermezzo of Op. 119 (1893) were then paired with Australian composer Brett Dean's homage to each of these pieces in which certain of Brahms' gestures, or metrical patterns, were echoed. It made for interesting listening. Grosvenor had obvious feel for the Dean pieces. Throughout all these works, Grosvenor showed expert pedaling. Nothing was ever muddied.
He took the "Intermezzo in B minor" in a lingering, very introspective tempo in which each note seemed significant. Dean's "Angel's Wings" echoed with cascading gossamer threads in the right hand in Brahms' colors. "Intermezzo in E minor," had a lighter texture with a graceful rubato that Dean's "Music for a Dockside Bar" became an assertive, pushy, busy piece. "Intermezzo in C Major" was a happy dance but Dean made it an abstract dirge. The final "Rhapsodie in E-flat Major" from Brahms was forceful with big, loud weighty chords that Grosvenor gave great lift and pacing.
An arrangement of Debussy's orchestral "Afternoon of a Faun" was lush and magical. Alban Berg's one-movement Sonata, Op. 1 (1909) was intense and abstract with a searching lyricism that Grosvenor brought out in all its sensitivity. It was a terrific performance. But he pulled all the stops out for Ravel's fiendishly demanding "Gaspard de la nuit" (1908) whose inspiration was the poetry of Aloysius Bertrand.
In a masterpiece of pacing, Grosvenor spun out rippling, shimmery swirls of sound that cascaded to describe the wicked water sprite "Ondine"; tolled a repeating bell to depict the macabre hanging corpse "Le Gibet"; and scampered across the keys from tinkling flourishes to huge swaths of sound in the goblin's tale "Scarbo."
Another amazing performance. The huge crowd leaped to its feet and got a sunny, delicate flourish of an Etude, Op. 72, No. 11 from Moritz Moszkowski.