Photo, Chris Christodoulou

Sunday, July 16, 2023

Royal Albert Hall, London

The magical orchestral colours and rapturous expression of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune would seem a very unlikely candidate for a piano transcription – and so it proved from Benjamin Grosvenor using the arrangement by Leonard Borwick (1868-1925) to open his morning recital, the bare bones of the music in black and white as well as recast with numerous pianistic cliches, however sensitively played. At least Ravel’s Baroque-based Le tombeau de Couperin is a piano original, written in memoriam of friends lost in World War I; Ravel would later orchestrate four of the six movements. Grosvenor was a little too quick, somewhat gabbled, in the opening ‘Prélude’, yet the ‘Fugue’ was nicely clarified with a light touch. ‘Forlane’ enjoyed an ideal tempo and heartfelt phrasing, with the ‘Rigaudon’ rather rushed and matter of fact. Of the final pair – ‘Menuet’ and ‘Toccata’ – the former was tender, with rises of emotional temperature contrasted with affecting dips to pianissimo, with the latter being a triumph of clear-sighted virtuosity. La valse came just after that conflict, in 1920, for orchestra as a potential ballet for Diaghilev – rejected – Ravel also making a two-piano version and then the one that Grosvenor undertook, the Viennese waltz initially shadowy, then brightly lit as those of high society dance to its entreaties, if pushed-through by Grosvenor, before the 3/4 rhythms are crushed by conflagration, the latter an orchestral gift, although Grosvenor sustained tension well and he drove the conclusion with menacing abandon. Liszt’s Réminiscences de Norma, a concoction from Bellini’s opera, had followed Faune, a Lisztian tour de force (a third hand useful), seemingly without ‘Casta Diva’ if full of drama and greasepaint and given a knockout performance by Grosvenor, shapely, intense and, for the final lap, thrilling. For an encore, a riposte to La valse, Grosvenor ushered in ‘The Swan’ from Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of Animals courtesy of Leopold Godowsky (1870-1938).