Benjamin Grosvenor on how to create a great recital programme
The British pianist on the challenges of playing varied programmes - and how to approach piano transcriptions
When he reviewed Benjamin’s Grosvenor’s most recent release, Dances, critic Jeremy Siepmann described the quality of playing as ‘exceptional’. We talk to the 22-year-old pianist about how he constructs his recital programmes and how he approaches transcriptions.
What are the main things you consider when putting a recital programme together?
My recital programmes always tend to be very varied. I may put together a more classical first half – works by Bach and Scarlatti with a Chopin sonata, say – followed by a more exotic second half. I always like to play lesser known pieces, but if I include something audiences don’t know, I will need something more familiar beside it.
You do have to be careful that it doesn’t become too much of a hodgepodge, though, by creating a structure or theme – it’s about brainstorming and putting together ideas that work. There might not always be a completely comprehensive reason why certain works go well together, but you follow a gut instinct. People often think of a recital of all Beethoven sonatas as being quite challenging, but I wonder whether a recital that has constant changes of style is more so because you have to keep changing mode.
Watch five fantastic performances by Benjamin Grosvenor
What was the main idea behind your most recent album Dances?
In his essay On Music, Alfred Brendel mentions that Busoni once wrote a letter to one of his pupils mooting the idea of a dance programme and detailing what that would entail. I had a look at the letter and structured something along those lines. Dances tend to be miniatures, so this programme is very varied in terms of era and style but I have laid it out chronologically to give it structure.
The programme is the same as my debut at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in 2012. The first half includes two Chopin polonaises and Bach’s Partita No. 4 in D major and the second half is more colourful with three Scriabin mazurkas and the Waltz in A flat major, Op. 38. I have always liked Spanish music so included ten waltzes from Granados's Valses Poeticos. The recital proper ends with Schulz-Evler's Arabesques on themes by Johann Strauss, which are fiendishly difficult.
How did you go about constructing the programme for your upcoming Barbican Hall debut?
There’s a Baroque feel to the first half. The first work is Rameau’s Gavotte and Variations, which is a palate cleanser before the following darker works – Busoni’s Chaconne, which is a 19th-century reimagining of the great Bach Chaconne – and the Franck Prélude, Chorale and Fugue. They are both quite stark works with organ-like sonorities.
The Bach-Busoni Chaconne especially has an organ-like sonority – it's a violin transcription but feels more like it was mentally transcribed for the organ before being transcribed for the piano, so it has ended up more organ-like than violin-like. I journey from dark to light through the programme so the second half is predominantly more optimistic. It includes Chopin's Barcarolle in F sharp major, Ballade No. 3 in A flat major and two mazurkas.
The programme ends with three pieces by Granados inspired by paintings by Goya – The Maiden and The Nightingale, Love and Death and El Pelele (the Straw Man), which is very light-hearted and fun.
You played this programme for your debut at Lucerne Festival in November. Is there anything you learnt from playing it then that you might change for future performances?
I am keeping the programme the same, but I certainly make small changes all the time. When you have a gap between concerts there is plenty of time to reassess interpretations and slightly alter your approach to pieces, which is what I am doing at the moment.
How has Busoni's transcription altered Bach's well know Chaconne in D minor, orginally composed for the violin?
The character of the piece remains faithful to the original, but it feels darker and Busoni's use of the full power of the piano’s bass sonorities creates a wider range of colour and texture in the piece. This version is perhaps less personal in places than Bach’s original for the violin – it takes on something much more monumental I suppose.
Some passages remain more violin-like than others, but when I perform it, I try to think of it all as a very separate thing. There is a Brahms transcription of the Bach Chaconne as well, but I have never played it because it feels too much like a piano trying to be a violin for me as it's such a close transcription. Some people may think the Busoni transcription is overdone in places – some of the sonorities are huge – but it’s embracing everything the piano can do and reimagining Bach's work really well for the piano.
Benjamin Grosvenor makes his Barbican Centre recital debut on Friday 23 January 2015. Visit www.benjamingrosvenor.co.uk/events to find out more
Photo: Sophie Wright/Decca
• Recording of the Month (October 2014): Benjamin Grosvenor Dances
• Review: Chopin • Liszt • Scriabin (Grosvenor)