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Benjamin Grosvenor: 5 pieces that changed my life

Robert Rowat

The last time pianist Benjamin Grosvenor performed in Toronto, exactly two years ago, reviewer Paul Ennis described it as a "riveting experience" that "exceeded all expectations." And expectations were high: Grosvenor, then 23, was already three albums into a record deal with Decca and had just played Last Night of the Proms with the BBC Symphony.

Now 25, Grosvenor has a fourth Decca release in his catalogue (Homages) and a concert schedule that would be the envy of any classical musician, including a run of concerto performances in the first three months of 2018 with conductors Riccardo Chailly, François-Xavier Roth, Dmitry Liss, Hannu Lintu, Manfred Honeck and Jonathon Heyward, and a mini residency in early April in New York City, where he'll play Beethoven 2 with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the New York Philharmonic, as well as a chamber music concert at the 92nd Street Y.

This recent video puts his interpretive skills on fine display.

Grosvenor returns to Toronto on Tuesday, Nov. 7, for a solo recital at Jane Mallett Theatre as a guest of Music Toronto. It's the only Canadian date on his upcoming North American concert tour on which he's playing a program of Mozart, Brahms, Debussy, Ravel, Berg and Brett Dean.

We reached out to Grosvenor to learn about the music that has shaped him so far. Below: five pieces that changed his life.

1. Edward Elgar, Cello Concerto in E Minor, Op. 85

"I discovered this work through the recording by Jacqueline du Pré with Sir John Barbirolli. I had already begun playing the piano at the age of five, with the connection to this instrument coming through my mother, who is a piano teacher. At some point a little later, I listened to this recording, which we had on cassette, and I was immediately taken with the plangent sound of the cello, and insisted that I learn this instrument as well.

"The primary school I attended was a half-hour drive from our house, so I would often listen to this tape in the car. Attracted by the piece and by du Pré’s incandescent musicianship, I learned the cello for three years in the hope that I might play this work! I put aside the cello at the age of 11 when piano playing really took over — something that I still regret now — but in my last months of playing I was able to work on the piece a little, which felt like a fitting end to my relationship with this instrument as a performer."

2. Maurice Ravel, Piano Concerto in G Major

"I entered BBC Young Musician at the age of 10, just for the experience and with little expectation of passing through the first round. Months later, when I won the keyboard section, I had then to play a concerto for the final. There was a 25-minute time limit, which obviously discounted a lot of scores and, of the works that were contenders, I was immediately attracted to the Ravel G major concerto, with its jazz-infused rhythms and harmonies, and that gorgeous, seemingly endless melody of the second movement. It was such an exciting experience to play it with the BBC Scottish Symphony and Ilan Volkov, who was wonderful at working with someone as young as I was, and I learned a lot from it."

3. Art Tatum, 'Tiger Rag'

"After the BBC Young Musician, one of my first tours was with the Scottish Ensemble, playing a Mozart concerto and Britten’s Young Apollo. After one of the concerts, a member of the ensemble gave me a CD of Art Tatum (The Art of Tatum), suggesting in particular I listen to Tatum’s rendition of 'Tiger Rag.' I already had an attraction to this kind of music, playing some Gershwin and a lot of Billy Mayerl (I was the youngest member of the Billy Mayerl Society by perhaps 50 years!).

"I was astonished by Tatum’s virtuosity and inventiveness, but also by the subtlety of his playing on this album. It was no wonder that Horowitz said, ‘If Art Tatum took up classical music seriously, I’d quit my job the next day.’ At some point a few years later, I decided to try playing ‘Tiger Rag’ after getting hold of the sheet music that someone had written out. I learned the piece, though never did perform it."

4. Franz Schubert, Piano Trio No. 1 in B-flat Major, D. 898

"This was one of the first chamber works that I played, and so has significance for me for that reason, but there is also a particular recording of this that was very eye-opening for me, with Thibaud, Casals and Cortot. The playing of the three of them fit together in such a wonderful way; the string players had such a vocal sound, ‘trading’ in portamenti in what seemed such a natural and inspired way. It was as if, in this recording, there was a layer of expression that I had not heard in chamber music performances before."

5. Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony No. 9

"When I was 13, I began having lessons with Daniel-Ben Pienaar at the Royal Academy of Music. They didn’t so much take the shape of piano lessons — instead, we would listen to recordings and talk about them. Through these lessons, I discovered a great many performers of the past I had not heard before; pianists and other instrumentalists and conductors.

"A recording that had a particular effect on me was that of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 by Wilhelm Furtwängler and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra from 1942. I found it very moving and still do. Furtwängler’s musicianship was like no one else’s, with his inspired, organic conceptions, conducting with a plasticity of pulse that seemed to enhance the formal structures and emotional delivery. There is a particularly intense nature to this performance which perhaps comes from the time and environment."

Editor's note: this video, filmed in Germany in 1942, contains propaganda of the Nazi party.

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