A hearty meal for gourmets
Stephen Hough calls his extremely generous, 79-minute, 17-item French Album ‘a sort of musical dessert trolley’, but that sells it short. It’s much more of a festive hamper, offering a full meal to lovers of French music, mixing up the familiar and the unknown with Stephen’s typical charm and panache.
Some gamey pâté comes in the entirely unexpected form of two Bach transcriptions by the great Swiss-born (but, by the end, entirely French) pianist Alfred Cortot. To those who enquire ‘Where’s the beef?’ there are several core repertoire items included here, such as a Faure Nocturne, Poulenc’s Melancolie, and above all, perhaps, Ravel’s Alborada Del Gracioso.
Having a sweet tooth, I especially love the sugary things, like Debussy’s Clair De Lune, and Hough’s own deliciously confected arrangements of Massenet’s Crepuscule and Delibes’s Pizzicato from the ballet Sylvia.
Connoisseur: Stephen Hough
A slab of smelly cheese comes at the end, with Liszt’s almost overwhelmingly flavour-some Reminiscences De La Juive. A feast fit for a king. In the liner notes, Hyperion quote an earlier review of mine, which applies in spades to this album: ‘Hough is a connoisseur, not merely a virtuoso.’
I itch to write the same about Benjamin Grosvenor, the young pretender to Hough’s crown as the finest currently active British pianist, and no doubt one day I will. But on the evidence of his new Decca release, Rhapsody In Blue, I can’t.
Grosvenor came to prominence aged 11, when he won the BBC Young Musician Of The Year competition, and is now a veteran of 20. From his photo, he’s an endearing young fogey, resplendent in bow tie, baggy jacket and cardigan, looking like an elderly Oxford don. And there’s an academic quality about his comments in the liner notes regarding his musical choices, and the great pianists of the past who inspire him.
Young pretender: Benjamin Grosvenor
Of the three concertos here – Saint-Saens’s Concerto No 2, Ravel’s Concerto In G Minor and the Gershwin Rhapsody – only the first comes off really well. It’s a curious piece, with echoes of Bach and Beethoven in the opening movement, a galumphing, unintentionally comic second movement, and a clangorous finale, which for many upholds the celebrated sneer that Saint-Saens was the greatest composer without genius who ever lived.
Personally, I like it. It was a favourite of Artur Rubinstein. Grosvenor and his partners, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic under James Judd, stand up well to comparisons with Rubinstein’s recording.
But he comes a bit of a cropper with the Ravel. This demands total virtuosity, which it pretty much gets here, and coldly objective, non-romantic playing, which it doesn’t. The bookish Grosvenor should surely have studied the stand-out recording by Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, whom Cortot, one of Grosvenor’s acknowledged heroes, once hailed as ‘the new Liszt’. Either he’d have been influenced by it to his advantage, or have left well alone.
This kind of performance would be fine in a concert hall, but has few claims to permanence. Not only is Grosvenor insufficiently Gallic, or Ravelian, especially in the slow movement, but the Decca sound is also too congested in the outer ones.
The Gershwin is even more disappointing. Grosvenor points out that three orchestrations exist, all by Ferde Grofe, arranger to Paul Whiteman’s jazz band, who commissioned the piece, and that the one for full symphony orchestra is most normally used. He picks the first, made for two dozen jazz musicians who accompanied Gershwin at the New York premiere.
Sadly, little of the jazzy flavour or lighter textures of that orchestration survives Decca’s beefy recording. The Liverpool players, despite the best endeavours of their principal clarinet, get no nearer New York than the Wirral Peninsula. Grosvenor throughout sounds what he is, a terrific concert pianist, but no Gershwin stylist.
Once again he hasn’t been academic enough. A stunning modern recording exists of Gershwin himself, courtesy of a player-piano and an old piano roll, playing with a superb group of New York session musicians, brilliantly directed by Michael Tilson Thomas. Far quicker and jazzier, it’s everything this new recording isn’t.
But Grosvenor is a real talent, and in time will deliver the goods on disc, of that I’m certain.