It’s good to catch up with Benjamin Grosvenor again as his pianistic career continues to develop. On Wednesday afternoon he returns to Symphony Hall , collaborating with the CBSO under the baton of Alpesh Chauhan for Brahms’ First Piano Concerto.
I ask Ben how long has this fantastic piece been in his repertoire, and what are its particular challenges? And I observe that this is a young man’s concerto, performed by a young pianist and directed by a young conductor.
“This is a new piece for me, with my first performances this autumn,” says Ben.
“I’ve played a number of Brahms’ later chamber works in recent years, and I was fascinated to come back to the young Brahms, when he was in that first rush of a raw but already immense genius. He was about my age when he wrote it– sometimes it’s been referred to as ‘Brahms without the beard’ – and its gestation came at a time when he was in a kind of ‘ardent friendship’ with Clara Schumann.
“It had a difficult development, starting out as a piano sonata and then a symphony before morphing into a piano concerto. After its first performances, which were generally poorly received, Brahms revised it a number of times.
“Brahms had in mind a concerto in which piano and orchestra were equally important, and that sense of a symphony with piano obbligato might in some way explain its frosty reception from critics and audiences, who had come to relish the Romantic concerto model in which the soloist was very much the hero of the enterprise.
“A particular challenge of the concerto then is in rising to fulfil this symphonic stature in a piece in which it is vital that pianist, conductor and orchestra work as one unit.
“It’s perhaps fitting for this performance that pianist, conductor and composer at the time of composition are of similar age. I can’t say how the performances will emerge at this point, but I’m very much looking forward to working with Alpesh Chauhan.
“Our musical paths crossed once when I performed with the Birmingham Schools Symphony Orchestra and Alpesh was in the cello section.” And here Benjamin kindly refers to the review I wrote of his account of the Chopin Second Piano Concerto with the BSSO conducted by Peter Bridle in 2005.
“I’ve heard wonderful things about him as a conductor, and it’s great that we will be working on this piece together a number of times, in Birmingham and Malvern with the CBSO and with the LSO at the Barbican in January.”
What is the balance between Benjamin’s workload (orchestral, solo recital, chamber music)? Does he perform as an accompanist?
“I love playing chamber music and like to include it among orchestral and recital dates, so that I have a satisfyingly varied musical diet,” says Benjamin.
“My next date in duo capacity will in be in Germany in January with the violinist Hyeyoon Park.”
Many of us still think of Benjamin Grosvenor as the boy wonder of the BBC Young Musician competition well over a decade ago. Is he getting away from that image?
“Many people here do still remember me from the competition. Outside of this country, though, the competition is less well-known, and my reputation comes primarily from my albums, Proms appearances, and concerts in those territories themselves. “
Next March brings an exciting new venture, when the BBC is transporting a mini-Proms series to Dubai (Welsh National Opera are joining the initiative there, too), and Ben will be performing no fewer than three concertos with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Edward Gardner conducting, within a week.
“I’m really looking forward to this! We’re doing Saint-Saens Second, Mozart K466 and the Britten concerto within a week there, so it will be a lot of work, but it will be great to take the Proms elsewhere, to visit Dubai and to explore so much repertoire with the BBC Symphony,” Ben enthuses.
Finally Ben tells me how he relaxes.
“Aside from music, I enjoy reading, cooking, swimming, spending time with friends and family, and, when I find the time for them, movies and TV shows – I’m looking forward to catching up on Planet Earth 2 soon. Though I have to be careful, having become addicted and binge-watched Breaking Bad a few years ago.
“Last year I became a homeowner. I never realised how many things need not to go wrong in order for a home to be habitable. It’s alarming to think that I now have a rudimentary knowledge of condensing gas boilers...”
* Benjamin Grosvenor plays Brahms’ First Piano Concerto with the CBSO, Alpesh Chauhan conducting, at Symphony Hall on November 30 (2.15pm). Details on 0121 780 3333.
Concerts to catch this week
* Paul Lewis: The much-admired pianist performs Schubert, Brahms and Liszt at Birmingham Town Hall on Friday 25 (7.30pm, preceded at 6pm by Birmingham Conservatoire THSH Recital Prizewinner Domonkos Csabay).
* Solihull Symphony Orchestra: A rare opportunity to hear Gliere’s lush Harp Concerto (soloist Rita Schindler). This concert on Saturday 26 at Shirley Methodist Church (3pm) ends with the epic Fifth Symphony of Shostakovich, Jon Malaxetxebarria conducting.
* Chilingirian Quartet: The veteran ensemble perform Mendelssohn at Birmingham Conservatoire on Tuesday 29 (1.05pm).