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Benjamin Grosvenor - Rhapsody in Blue - Audiophile Audition


29 August 2012
Audiophile Audition
Peter Joelson
4½ Stars

Very recently recorded (16-19 April 2012 at The Friary, Liverpool) and hot off the press, Benjamin Grosvenor's debut recording with orchestra is highly impressive.  His combination of thorough preparation and on-the-spot inspiration is a winning one.  And what an excellent idea it is to have a short piece for solo piano between the concertante works.

Only the other week, Grosvenor played the Saint-Saëns works at the Proms and he's been on tour with it in U.S., too.  Decca's studio recording sounds remarkably alive compared with the concert performances.  The Bachian first movement is fluid and sufficiently relaxed without being pulled about too much, the lightly tripping second movement a masterly example of control, and the last movement has Grosvenor straight out of the box like a greyhound.  What marvellous and uplifting energy!  Godowsky's transcription of "The Swan" is exquisite.

Ravel's Piano Concerto in G was written during the time several composers were introducing for the first time elements of what they heard in traditional jazz performances.  Undeniably French and Basque with a hint of New Orleans or New York, the concerto is very finely performed by Grosvenor.  Jessica Duchen's excellent, generously extensive essay (in the booklet accompanying the CD, and not included with the download)-really an interview with Grosvenor about the composers and their music-throws light on the pianist's tastes and thoughts, quotes him on French music which he feels "... is underrated or that it's judged as no more than opulent mood music....".  Grosvenor brings out so much more than that and this recording deserves, I feel, to sit proudly beside Martha Argerich's, and among many other fine performances.

James Judd and Royal Liverpool Philharmonic are spot-on playing their part, with sensitive accompanying along the way, shimmering strings in the Saint-Saëns, chamber-music style answering by the wind, warmth in the Ravel, and all with that magic touch of spontaneity.

The introduction to Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, the 1924 arrangement for Paul Whiteman, begins with an extremely impressive clarinet flourish and glissando (will he, won't he get to the top smoothly?).  Like Freddy Kempf in his new recording for BIS, Grosvenor doesn't hesitate to be reflective when needed, and he pulls out the stops for the more wildly acrobatic parts.  While the orchestra struts its stuff with aplomb for the most part, it could do with a bit more swagger in a couple of places, something Wild and Fiedler in Boston and Siegel and Slatkin achieve in their earlier recordings of later arrangements. The excellent percussion are well caught.

The recording quality is very good, intimate, fairly close-in without being claustrophobic, and isn't terrifically wide or deep.  The tone of Grosvenor's Steinway Model D is very well captured, with sufficient acoustic of the location to let it sing.  The Friary seems to have a relatively short reverberation time and, while the recording isn't dry, it lacks the sumptuous acoustic of Boston or St. Louis, Earl Wild's recording on Living Stereo still packing a considerable audiophile punch.  And yet, the intimate quality of the recording suits the intimate quality of the playing, and the engineering does not distract from that.

Benjamin Grosvenor appreciates lighter, jazzier works, ideal for encores, and I hope he'll include others in due course, more Gershwin, Billy Mayerl, Fats Waller, to name but three. Did I mention "Love Walked In" is utterly magical?  A supreme finish to an excellent recording.


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Rhapsody In Blue: Saint-Saens, Ravel, GershwinRhapsody In Blue: Saint-Saens, Ravel, Gershwin