CHOPIN: Piano Concerto No. 1 in E Minor, Op. 11; Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Minor, Op. 21
Benjamin Grosvenor, piano/ Royal Scottish National Orchestra/ Elim Chan – Decca 485 0365
(1/25/21) 70:24 [Distr. by Universal] ****:
Benjamin Grosvenor (b. 1992) has become the rage among contemporary British pianists, even if I have been dilatory in climbing aboard the bandwagon. Grosvenor at age eleven won the 2004 BBC Young Musician of the Year award, and his 2020 recording of the two Chopin concertos has already gleaned a Gramophone Award in the Concerto category and a Diapason d’Or de l’année from the French magazine of the same name, Diapason, whose critic commended the album as “a version to rank among the best and confirmation of an extraordinary artist.” Conductor Elim Chan, new to me, was the first female winner of the Donatella Flick LSO Conducting Competition in 2014. She brings a consistent, muscular verve to Chopin’s orchestral accompaniments, a fluid sense of fire and vitality that complement the long strings of legato and bel canto that saturate the epic piano parts of both concertos. The recordings, from 4-5 August 2019, enjoy a warm and luxurious presence, courtesy of Recording Producer John Fraser.
In the 1830 E Minor Concerto, actually the second in Chopin’s chronology of composition, we can well savor Grosvenor’s lyrical pulse and articulation of Chopin’s upper register fioritura, accompanied by soft strings and French horn. The influence of Bellini’s bel canto style compels us to hear singing everywhere in the studied phraseology, often marked by pregnant breaths in the phrase lengths. Then, of course, there occur those spectacular thrusts forward, moving with the concentrated texture of the orchestra to achieve a thunderous impetus. Chan does have the ability to pull back the ostentation and grandiose pageantry of the occasion, to allow the moments of refined intimacy their due.
The two participants’ balance of leggierissimo and risoluto affects maintains our own sense of the precarious sonic aura Chopin demands in the course of a journey whose operatic intentions are never in doubt. Chopin has introduced a third theme of melancholic reminiscence into the mix that sways and undulates in waves of 16th notes in scalar patterns over the range of the keyboard. A mystical quiet descends over the haunted second theme, the bassoon in the background, here late in the recapitulation. The woodwind punctuations near the coda enjoy an especial resonance, while Grosvenor moves to a dazzling peroration that winds and brass emphasize with the three closing chords of the Allegro maestoso.
The piano and orchestra bask in serene colloquy in the Romanza: Larghetto, a spun-out aria in E Major of often sweeping lyricism. The marvelous tonal and poetic, acoustical balances often remind me of the fluidity achieved two generations ago by Alexander Brailowsky and William Steinberg, except that classic reading lost much by the excised version of the first movement tutti. The nocturne by Grosvenor at various moments seems to float, air-borne, in a cloud of revered nostalgia. The last movement, Rondo: Vivace, proffers a spirited krakowiak whose syncopes and brilliant runs Grosvenor delivers with fiendish panache. Even in the midst of double forte passages he does not slam the keyboard. The tonality moves with lithe subtlety from E Major to B Major and E-flat Major, all accomplished with deft accuracy and no break in the continuous melodic lines sparked by infectious, national rhythms.
The F Minor Concerto (1829) emerges from the Hummel and Kalkbrenner tradition, but its voice and adaptation of the stile brillante remains Chopin’s own invention. The opening declamations of the Maestoso find a tempered statement in the secondary theme, where winds and strings have alleviated the vehemence of the brass, and especially the trombone. The martial sensibility leads to Grosvenor’s rounded entry, thoughtful at first but quite willing to resonate with passion and clear, intimate lines. Chopin marks his secondary theme con anima, arriving after a lilted phrase, and itself a model of operatic, bel canto simplicity. The melodic line allows Grosvenor latitude for personal rubato that never ceases to sing while caressing the melismas built into the pointed aria. The ability of the two principals to allow the music to evolve of itself will remind auditors of Artur Rubinstein’s approach to this concerto, although Chan’s conducting style proves infinitely more aggressive than ever Alfred Wallenstein led the work for Rubinstein. The development, lush in its application of woodwind weavings to surround the keyboard, casts a spell entirely compelling, leading to the blatant propulsions and orchestral turns that dissolve before the piano’s mystique, already hinting at the intimacy of the second movement’s magical nocturne. The consistent, pearly play from Grosvenor bespeaks a technical resource that enhances the solo part poetically, while the orchestra concludes the movement with that national
sense of aggression that Schumann characterized as “cannons hidden in flowers.”
The A-flat Major Larghetto remains a world unto itself, opening in a soft mist of strings and winds and then asking the solo to enter molto con delicatezza with an ornamental aria that only poets might describe. The pearly play of Grosvenor’s trill resounds with crystalline fire. The middle section, announced dramatically by the tremolo strings, beckons Grosvenor’s tiger to appear, and his carefully etched phrases convey passion and mystery. A sweet ascending scale and glistening dew drops in high register transition to the ornamented opening motifs, illumined by coloratura worthy of Bidu Sayao. The dialogue with the woodwinds and strings, a bit dark in hue, vaporizes into a refined aether. Chopin may have derived his finale, Allegro vivace, from a Hummel model, but its strong Polish, rhythmic kernel thrusts forward with suave dexterity. The sudden appearance of the col legno bow strikes in the second subject adds a colorful, martial effect. The scalar runs and left hand rhythmic impulses, brilliant coloratura, soon blend into a carefree fantasy in mazurka rhythm, only to have the orchestra trumpet in martial phrases, anticipating the French horn cor de signal arrival of the F Major coda. Here, Grosvenor allows his acrobatic urge full rein in the scales and runs, briskly, deftly executed. Grosvenor and faithful orchestra leader Chan usher in a conclusion to a most satisfactory reading of this concerto, whose authority will educe comparisons with old masters Rubinstein and Cortot.