A Young Pianist Learns Liszt From Listening

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For his new album, Benjamin Grosvenor delved into historical recordings of the daunting Sonata in B minor.

How do the great musicians prepare to play the great works? Each has his or her own methods, and tends to keep the strategy quiet, a secret key to success.

One thing that distinguishes the subtle Benjamin Grosvenor, 28, from the rest of the pack of young star pianists is his extensive knowledge of historical recordings. This listening has paid off in a spellbinding Liszt recording out on Decca on Friday, crowned with a typically thoughtful account of the treacherous Sonata in B minor.

“I almost feel like you should know the notable recordings of a work like this,” Grosvenor said of the sonata in a recent interview. “More than anything, it helps you understand what works and what doesn’t work. You react to some things positively and you react to some things negatively, and that fuels your imagination.”

Close listening brought out the enormous range of possibilities in a work that presents an intellectual challenge of interpretation as much as a punishing test of technique. The piece is a Faustian struggle between the diabolical and the divine; the question is how to make it cohere over more than 30 minutes.

“You react to some things positively and you react to some things negatively,” Grosvenor said, “and that fuels your imagination.”
Kalpesh Lathigra for The New York Times

There is no single answer. The example of Radu Lupu points in one direction. “It has this great inevitability about it,” Grosvenor said of Lupu’s interpretation. “In terms of the way he controls the pulse it’s quite symphonic, and also in the kinds of sounds he produces.”

Shura Cherkassky, a figure beloved of pianophiles whose impulsive, visionary performances were so idiosyncratic that Grosvenor said he would never dare imitate them, offers something else in a live recording from 1965. “Sometimes it feels kind of improvisatory and sometimes he doesn’t quite do what’s written in the score,” Grosvenor said. “But he somehow makes this miracle of his own unique narrative from it.”

Perils lurk whichever way a pianist turns. “The danger in pursuing this symphonic, quite rigid, controlled outlook is that it could quite easily become something more of an academic exercise than the fantastical piece that it is,” Grosvenor said. “And obviously if you go along the Cherkassky route, you could make it sound like something that doesn’t make much sense.”

If Grosvenor successfully traces a course between those extremes, he also takes inspiration from how his forebears have resolved the many difficulties in a work of this scale. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

What do you think about the opening bars of the sonata, which are so spare compared to what follows?

It’s foreboding, and mysterious, and a little bit threatening. It would be quite interesting to just line up eight recordings of the first bar. For someone who is a music lover but who is not that acquainted with putting a piece together, it might just be interesting to hear how two notes can essentially be interpreted in so many different ways.

Vladimir Horowitz’s opening

(Sony Classical)

Shura Cherkassky’s opening

(Live, 1965)

Alfred Brendel’s opening

(Philips)

Benjamin Grosvenor’s opening

(Decca)

There are many valid approaches. What Vladimir Horowitz does in a large hall in his Carnegie recording, this kind of demonic thing, works very well. Cherkassky’s is interesting; it sounds like he’s improvising, like it’s something that’s just come to him in the moment, but it’s obviously conscious because he executes it in the same way at the end of the slow movement as well.

I was aiming for something mysterious, almost — so the notes are not too present. They’re quite soft, very much like plucked strings, the bass more in it than the treble, like what Alfred Brendel does.

So comparisons with orchestral sounds help you define what you are trying to achieve, even in a work as pianistic as this?

As a pianist you’ve been playing the piano all of your life; you have a natural association with piano sound. So it’s only when you’re forced to put it into words that you try to make those associations. But it is an appropriate way to think, because, for most composers, the piano is always trying to imitate other instruments, because of its nature as a percussion instrument. Again, it’s a line of thought that adds fire to the imagination, and the colors that you then draw out.

One of the challenges in the piece is how to create tension over the whole, or even just over shorter periods of double octaves, or continuous fortissimo dynamics. You picked out a section near the start as an example.

In this double-octave passage there is a lot of fortissimo playing, and you vary that in terms of dynamics, but the meter is the same for a while, with these continuous quavers.

Horowitz’s octaves

(Sony Classical)

Radu Lupu’s octaves

(Live, 1990)

Grosvenor’s octaves

(Decca)

Horowitz, in the final rise and descent, just pushes through. There’s lots of wrong notes, but it’s raw. It’s exceptionally difficult because of the octaves, but if you can push through it in that way I think it’s very effective, all the way to the lowest note on the piano.

So when you are playing the piece live, does atmosphere matter more than precision in passages like this?

Yes, this is music that’s probably not supposed to be played cleanly. Part of the struggle is, it is technically difficult, but that’s what makes it exciting. Someone said of Horowitz that his playing is not exciting because he plays fast, but because he plays faster than he can. In this music there’s an element of that. Lupu generates the tension in a different way; it’s tension by holding back, by creating a limit that you’re working against.

Then the slow movement poses quite different challenges.

Claudio Arrau’s slow movement

(Philips)

Grosvenor’s slow movement

(Decca)

It’s magical music. The most incredible bit for me is this ascending line in the right hand, the scales after the climax. It’s the most static point of the piece, and a groove needs to be found between static to the point of no motion, and finding the magic that’s in it. Not to play it too casually. Claudio Arrau there is very special; it’s such a wonderful moment with these triple pianissimos — finding that beautiful color, and where to take the time.

Then comes the fugue, a moment when I’m always wondering how fast a pianist is going to try to play. Is this another place where aura matters more than accuracy?

The counterpoint needs to be clear. So it’s the point at which you can still characterize it, and that point is different for each pianist, as long as it builds and builds gradually to the right point.

Cherkassky’s fugue

(Live, 1965)

Grosvenor’s fugue

(Decca)

Intellectually speaking it’s not necessarily correct, but I quite like the idea of treating the first five bars as a kind of fanfare. They don’t carry enough to push forward out of the slow movement, so to me they inevitably sit somewhere in between if you are going to take it at that tempo. I like the change of pace there.

The magic, and the music, of the slow movement return on the very last page.

Grosvenor’s ending

(Decca)

It’s this final transition from darkness to light: the rumbling in the left hand, then the way that it ascends to the top of the piano. Those diminished chords are little shards of light, then it comes away to the very low notes, then these transcendent last chords. That’s what the last page is about: transcendence. You can’t help but think that the last note is an awakening from a dream.

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