British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor more than justified his celebrity among dominant virtuosos Tuesday, March 12 at the MacAfee Performing Arts Lecture Center, Saratoga, under the auspices of the Steinway Society the Bay Area. In a manner as astonishing technically as it proved intellectually aggressive, Grosvenor performed a marathon recital in the style of the “old school” grand masters – Hofmann, Backhaus, Wild, and Slenczynska – with music by Schumann, Janacek, Prokofiev, and Liszt that raised the roof to a degree that superlatives become trite. Even the two encores, respectively by Moszkowski (Etude in A-flat) and Ginastera, would have sufficed to establish Grosvenor’s mastery in scintillating and virile musicianship if the prior piece, his rendition of Liszt’s 1844 Reminiscences de Norma: Grande fantasia, had not generated enough kinetic energy to spin an infinite chorus of dervishes.
Grosvenor opened with two contrasting Schumann works: the 1839 Blumenstück in D-flat Major, and the knotty suite Kreisleriana, Op. 16 (1838; rev. 1850). The so-called “Flower Piece” utilizes a four-note motif from Schumann’s own Carnaval, meant to celebrate his beloved Clara Wieck. Set as a double-theme and five variations, the second of these repeats suggests the blossoming of a lifelong romance. Grosvenor imparted a sweet intimacy in a score most of us came to know through Vladimir Horowitz. The more fiendish eight-section Kreisleriana takes its cue from the literary source of E.T.A. Hoffmann, whose character Johannes Kreisler exhibits the polarities of genius that Schumann translates into B-flat major and G minor, the personification of Florestan and Eusebius, the “two warring souls” in the composer’s breast. They began ominously enough, in D minor, with nothing short of a feral toccata from Grosvenor, but the tenor calmed to allow Grosvenor to apply any number of subtle colors to Schumann’s evocative palette. Although the sheer variety of moods and affects would no less illuminate the series of 12 Fugitive Visions of Prokofiev that graced the second half of the concert, the Schumann evinced a rich “interior” life of its own — assertive, dreamy, passionate, even morbid, as required. The series of scalar passages, fugatos, chorales, and chromatic leaps demanded in the course of this staggering piece evolved with an eerie calm and repose from Grosvenor, who had imbibed the work’s ethos as one, unified canvas.
After intermission, Grosvenor delivered an extremely thoughtful, chiseled rendition of Leos Janacek’s I.X.1905 Sonata, “From the Street,” a “political” piece the composer meant to discard, but which endures to depict a cruel incident from Czech history: Frantisek Pavlik, a twenty-year-old worker, had been protesting in Brno for a Czech university in the city when Austro-Hungarian troops bayoneted him to death. Although it was Janacek’s most significant piano composition, it remained rejected by him until his 70th birthday, his having eliminated its third movement and having thrown the score into the Moldau. Fortunately for us, the pianist who premiered the two-movement sonata preserved a copy. Grosvenor projected in the first movement the angst-ridden calm-before-the-storm, marked by suggestions of folk elements and national song. The E-flat minor second movement presents a threnody — a deathly dirge rife with tremulous and violent chordal patterns, irregular metric stops and starts, a sensibility of an individual and a nation staggered by oppression.
Next followed the daring, irreverent, risky colors of Sergei Prokofiev, his series of brilliant miniatures after the poet Balmont, the Op. 22 Visions fugitives from 1915-1917. Grosvenor demonstrated a compendium of touches and maneuvers at the keyboard to effect these whimsical assemblages to best advantage. The opening Lentamente had a sardonic edge, not far from Satie. The Allegretto might have paid homage to Mussorgsky. Pittoresco (Arpa),the No. 7, bowed to both Liszt and Debussy. Several delighted in pirouettes, curlicues, and minor eddies of sound, like Con vivacita, No. 11. The potent No. 14, Feroce, might have been lifted from the Scythian Suite. The harmonic daring and rhythmic verve and audacities flew by so quickly their mercurial, even revolutionary, force dissipated before their real threat to the establishment could be comprehended.
Finally, Grosvenor released his tour de force, his monumental Reminiscences de Norma, after the 1831 tragic opera by Vincenzo Bellini, the master of the Italian bel canto style that so influenced Chopin. Often called “the Everest of Operas,” the title role for soprano –- a Druid high priestess — demands virtuosic leaps, scales, arpeggios, trills, and high, expressive gestures. These ingredients inform Liszt’s piano style precisely, and Grosvenor’s realization caught the exquisite craftmanship that condenses seven of the opera’s major themes –- excepting Casta diva –- into an incendiary, flamboyant vehicle requiring the most gifted of piano virtuosos to accomplish. Explosive cadenzas, high-register bravura octaves, a plenitude of crossed hands, evocations of competing pianist Thalberg’s “three-hand” effect, and any number of symphonic declamations made the experience heart-pounding. Especially dazzling, the treatment of the aria Qual cor tradisti, with its multi-layered melody over insistent drumbeats and an aroused accompaniment, set the Steinway afire.
Grosvenor’s performance achieved the exalted musicianship that transcends technique, and a thoroughly mesmerized audience gratefully acknowledged his awesome powers.