The young boy marches confidently on to the platform, flashes a bright smile and takes a bow. Once seated at the piano, he looks intently studious. The face is unexpectedly chubby, but as he gets stuck into his Scarlatti sonatas it becomes easy to recognise the young virtuoso-in-the-making.
This was Benjamin Grosvenor in 2004, the year he took part in BBC Young Musician of the Year. Aged 11, he was the youngest-ever winner of the competition’s keyboard section, though switch off the video and try to guess his age from the playing. Nobody would ever know.
“Being 10 or 11 is a good age to enter a competition,” he says. “I didn’t feel much pressure.” Live on nationwide TV? Is he being humorous or bragging? The matter-of-fact tone suggests neither.
“It was a surprising experience,” he goes on. “A leaflet came through the door and I entered the competition, not thinking I would get past the first round. It was a huge surprise to reach the concerto final. I didn’t have a concerto to play of the length required [under 25 minutes] and they wanted a recording very far in advance to show I could play it, so I learned the Ravel Piano Concerto in G. I recorded some of the trickier parts I hadn’t mastered yet on an electric piano and sped them up.”
It can be tricky living up to, or living down, the “child prodigy” label. Grosvenor fulfilled many of its requirements — the youngest-ever soloist at the opening night of the BBC Proms in 2011, the youngest double-award winner at the prestigious Gramophone awards in 2012 — but now he is well established in an international career with his feet firmly on the ground.
This may be due in part to his modest start. Far from jetting off to a music academy overseas, Grosvenor grew up in Westcliff-on-Sea in Essex in a musical family with four brothers (“the others dropped out one by one until I was the last man standing”). His grandfather had wanted to be a concert pianist and his mother was his first piano teacher. By the age of nine he was flaunting his far-flung musical enthusiasms, playing everything from Chopin to jazz at The Boatyard, a local restaurant.
Now 28, Grosvenor spends his time hopping from one country to another, playing solo recitals and concerts with major orchestras. At least, he would, if his diary had not been emptied by pandemic-related cancellations, especially in the US, where he is a regular visitor.
As a result, the past year has meant a greater-than-usual focus on recordings. For Grosvenor, this has long been a productive area, as he has recorded with Decca since 2011, winning a clutch of international awards.
The first fruit of that is an all-Liszt disc, which will be released on February 19. The choice of programme has a personal connection. “I chose Liszt because my grandfather passed away at the beginning of 2020 and Liszt was his favourite composer,” says Grosvenor. “My aim was to make a selection of music that shows Liszt as a composer in many guises — the Piano Sonata, a Schubert song transcription, the Petrarch Sonnets and an operatic paraphrase. My grandfather, a member of the Liszt Society, especially loved the second Petrarch Sonnet.”
Many piano discs these days feature a collage of short, popular tracks aimed at playlists, but not Grosvenor’s. He has kept a judicious balance between seriousness of repertoire and the virtuoso showpieces at which he is so brilliant.
“This is a marvellous time to be a pianist because we can listen to recordings right back to 1900,” he says. “[The golden age pianists] were big on personality. You don’t necessarily love everything they do, but at their best they play spontaneously in the moment, and that is quite awesome. Alfred Cortot’s recordings are full of wrong notes, but he was an incredible musical mind. I love Ignaz Friedman’s Chopin and Liszt, and Josef Hofmann in Chopin’s Fourth Ballade.”
With time on his hands over the past year, Grosvenor has probably listened to a lot of recordings, but he has also hatched more ambitious plans. Encouraged by a violinist friend who is a neighbour, he committed to setting up a chamber music festival in Bromley, Kent, where he now lives with his girlfriend — not the most obvious move in the middle of a pandemic. The three founders did everything themselves: raising the finance, creating the website, even drawing up a new seating plan every morning to take account of social distancing requirements.
The first Bromley and Beckenham International Music Festival took place last September and there are hopes of a second festival in 2021. It was, says Grosvenor, “a great positive to take out of such a dark time”.
Although his diary is still in flux, he does have one recital coming up. This is at the Barbican in London on January 10 and the event is expected to go ahead online, even if there can be nobody in the hall.
His diary is still in flux, with his latest recital — which was expected to take place at the Barbican in London on January 10 — now postponed.
When it does take place, it promises a classic Grosvenor programme with some old favourites and colourful novelties. Composers he has been passionate about from his early days — Chopin, Ravel — are still with him, so Ravel’s showpiece Gaspard de la nuit will form the climax. “It is so full of colour and invention,” he says, “and I love ‘Le Gibet’ [a picture of a man hanging from the gallows], even if it isn’t the most difficult part, because it is such a gruesomely beautiful piece.” Before that, there will be Chopin, some Liszt off his new CD, and little-known Ginastera, dancing to the composer's native Argentine rhythms.
“I have done some streaming concerts to an empty hall this year, but not a solo recital,” he says. “I found it could be quite a special atmosphere, especially last summer at the BBC Proms, but maybe it will feel different without other musicians on the platform with me. We shall see.”
Since publication, Benjamin Grosvenor’s recital at the Barbican, originally scheduled for January 10, has been postponed. His new disc of Liszt will be released by Decca on February 19