Benjamin Grosvenor on “Homages” and the Creators Who Inspire Him

Mendelssohn, Franck, and others portray Bach influence in shades of light and dark on Benjamin Grosvenor’s new album. KING FM’s Dave Beck asked the rising young soloist about what makes this music special, and about his own personal influences.

Edited by Geoffrey Larson

Dave Beck: What drew you to the concept in this Homages recording of one composer paying tribute to another? How is this a fascinating idea to you?

Benjamin Grosvenor: I initially had the idea of sort of a “Baroque revisited” album, but I like in my recordings to present the kind of variety that I present in my concert programs; I wanted that to be reflected on the CD. I had the idea of expanding that concept, [with] this general idea of homage or tribute and the various ways in which composers pay tribute to places and to other music, and also personal tributes as well. There’s an extra to this CD which is available as a download, which is Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin, and it fits into the Baroque theme that opens the CD. We have the Bach-Busoni Chaconne, the Mendelssohn Preludes and Fugues, and the Franck Prelude, Chorale and Fugue. Then of course there’s the Ravel; it’s all composers looking back to the Baroque, the first three probably specifically to Bach, but in the Ravel instead he’s really looking instead to the French Baroque suites. Maybe not specifically Couperin, but sort of the whole sensibility of the music of that era, and of the French Baroque dance suite. And then there’s the Chopin Barcarolle and the Liszt Venezia e Napoli, which are very much those composers’ tributes to particular places.

DB: I’m interested in the juxtaposition in this project of composers paying homage to Bach but also looking back to folk traditions, to tunes of the people, [as was] the case with Chopin and Liszt. What was interesting to you about that idea?

BG: Well it’s very different music. Of course, preludes and fugues are not particular music with religious significance, but you could say there is a spiritual aspect to that kind of music. I suppose the CD is also weighted in terms of light and dark. The Bach-Busoni Chaconne, the Mendelssohn Preludes and the Franck Prelude, Chorale and Fugue explore complex and sort of dark emotions. The Franck is a sort of extraordinary struggle exploring intense grief, but [ending] in triumph. It resolves in major at the end of the piece with this triumphant sort of pealing bells in the piano. And then the Barcarolle is a much sunnier work, [as is] the Liszt Venezia e Napoli. There’s this sort of juxtaposition of light and dark on this CD.

DB: How does a set of pieces like the Preludes and Fugues, Op. 35 that Mendelssohn wrote in homage and admiration for Bach help us understand Mendelssohn’s passion for Bach in a new way, or a deeper way?

BG: Mendelssohn was someone who did a great deal to sort of unearth Bach’s music. He organized a performance of the St. Matthew Passion, among other things. People quipped that he was much too fond of the dead, had a fascination with the past. This is Mendelssohn writing in the form of a prelude and fugue but sort of bringing to it his own language, and the modern piano techniques of the time. For example, the E minor Prelude and Fugue has this technique of dividing the melody between the hands in sort of a “three-hand” effect with the arpeggios continually going up and down the piano, but the melody is always present. It’s sort of influenced by Bach, but very much in the modern language of the time.

DB: I imagine that you’re struck in studying and preparing these pieces about how these composers so unmistakably retain their own voice but still immerse themselves in the style of the predecessors. How are you most impressed by that?

BG: Yes, I think that’s the case in all of these works. I suppose probably the most obvious example to explain is this Bach-Busoni Chaconne, which is really interesting: a piece originally for solo violin, so very sparing in the writing because he didn’t have so many notes to work with, and then Busoni takes this and “piano-strates” it in a way, sort of orchestrates it for the piano. He generates these sonorities – I think if you didn’t know the original, and you were told it was a transcription, you might think that it might have been an organ piece, because that’s the kind of sonorities that he generates in this work. So there really is as much Busoni in that as there is Bach, although he’s very faithful to the journey of the piece, and rightly so. He’s very faithful to the material, but the way he treats it is certainly very different to the original – certainly very 19th-century.

DB: We haven’t said much about Franck, and we should touch on how César Franck looks back in time to Bach and pays homage there.

BG: Yes, I think he originally had the intention of writing a prelude and fugue, and then decided to put the chorale in the middle. As I’ve said, this is such a dark work. There’s a quote from Alfred Cortot who said it emanates not from a principle of composition but a psychological necessity, almost as if to explain, or to work out the emotions he has presented to us in the prelude and chorale. A fugue is necessary – this sort of intellectually rigorous music is what is necessary to work out the strands of emotion that he has presented. I think it’s a very sort of interesting piece psychologically, a very dark and moving piece, and of course Franck’s tribute to the baroque, but not in a strict way. Saint-Saëns, who was a very conservative man, quipped that the chorale’s not a chorale and the fugue’s not a fugue. They’re not strict to the models that they’re presenting, they’re not completely faithful to the Baroque idea, but the idea is there and the form is there. The forms are being used as a means to express the emotion.

DB: We’ve touched on this briefly, but the Barcarolle in F sharp major of Chopin: why was this such a strong candidate for the Homages recording for you?

BG: I suppose that coming after those dark pieces, it’s a piece which is so luminous in the sound that it generates. It’s such a rich work, rich in its melodic content and coloristically as well. It’s a slightly hazy view of Venice, which is a place that Chopin never visited, and he sort of has this nostalgia in this piece for somewhere he never went. It’s interesting [for it] to be followed by the Liszt, which quotes themes Liszt would have heard on the streets of that city, so you could say in a way [the portrayal is] much more real in the Liszt where in the Chopin it’s sort of in a different realm. But in the Liszt we see his complete genius for translating things for the piano in the way he sets melodies for the piano. In all these pieces you see his mastery of figuration and of the various techniques that he invented.

DB: Tell me a little bit more about what you’ve come to learn and appreciate about Liszt, because he was so wide-ranging in the sounds that caught his ears and imagination. There are folk sounds and materials, and music that other composers had set. He was of course influenced by, and played for Beethoven as a youth. One of the tunes he sets, Beethoven had also set. There are some interesting materials that Liszt draws on.

BG: That’s right, this is obviously such a fascinating figure. As you said, the folk song, the gondola song that begins Venezia e Napoli, Beethoven also set – one of his works without opus [number]. Liszt had this wonderful talent for translating things for the piano, which can particularly be seen in his opera transcriptions, where he takes the whole opera and presents us with the essence of it in the most incredible way or in a short space of time onto the piano. Transcribing things to the piano was the way a lot of people could see music. When performances perhaps weren’t quite as [widely distributed as] they are now, people could have a connection to this music by playing it in their own homes. But what I think is particularly fascinating about Liszt is his late start, [the music he composed] at the end of his life. He was always quite a religious man, and he sort of followed that path, but the way his music develops, he almost rejects the virtuosity of his youth. He presents to us this very sparing way for writing for the piano, and he’s extremely experimental as well. He wrote a piece without tonality, sort of exploring atonality, and the piece is seen as a precursor of impressionism, so he was a very forward-thinking individual.

DB: How has working on this Homages project made you think back on your own formative influences as a pianist and artist? How does contemplating Mendelssohn’s admiration of Bach or other similar musical relationships bring up similar memories or appreciation from you?

BG: Obviously as a pianist I have various influences and pianists I’m interested in. I have a great interest in pianists of the past and historical recordings. I think it’s wonderful that we can listen back to pianists who had direct connections to the great composer-pianists, and people like Liszt in the 19th century and Maurice Rosenthal and many others, and it’s fascinating to hear the way the play and their particular voices at the piano. Inevitably these influences – perhaps not in direct ways – sort of filter through sometimes.

Benjamin Grosvenor’s Homages is available now on Decca Records.