Liszt with Love in Lockdown
Pianist Benjamin Grosvenor talks about his personal and passionate testament to the visionary spirit of Franz Liszt, prepared and recorded in the dark months of COVID.Grosvenor is twenty-eight, and yet his remarkable musicianship has been capturing the hearts of the public for a long time. He won the BBC Young Musician Competition at eleven, when his imagination and technical prowess were already producing an uncanny brand of maturity and sparkle.
Now, in isolation as the COVID lockdown drags on in London, he has focused on the kaleidoscopic output of Franz Liszt. In our conversation, he talks about being so close to Liszt, while remaining so distant from life as it used to be. (See a full transcript below.)
Building around the epic Sonata in B minor, Grosvenor includes the magical (and ferociously taxing) Reminiscences of Norma, as well as the three Petrarch Sonnets from the exquisite Years of Pilgrimage. Also included is a haunting account of a rarely-played version of the Berceuse and the beautiful reworking of Schubert’s song Ave Maria. The result is a fresh and loving recording, dedicated to the grandfather he recently lost, who inspired Benjamin to play the piano in the first place.
The challenges in Liszt’s music are many and monumental, like pacing the climaxes as they arrive one after another (as in his transcription of themes from Bellini’s Norma), or getting a melody to sing out with your thumbs while the rest of your fingers are busy conjuring elaborate atmospheres (in the Ave Maria).
One of the greatest challenges is in the Sonata, keeping an immense, over-arching structure intact while moments of beauty erupt spontaneously. As Grosvenor said in our interview, “Only as time progresses do you realize that it's actually part of this great master plan that [Liszt] has, that goes over the massive breadth and length of this piece.”
Benjamin Grosvenor’s Liszt recording is available from Decca Classics.
Cathy Fuller [00:00:00] I'm talking with Benjamin Grosvenor, who is in London, is that right, Benjamin?
Benjamin Grosvenor [00:00:04] That's right, yep.
CF [00:00:05] First question is always, you know, how is the ship staying afloat? Are you OK? How is this rolling out for you with the pandemic?
BG [00:00:13] I'm okay. It's been a bit harder with the lockdown here this time around. I think just because it's winter and it's dark early and it's cold and it's a bit depressing. But I'm trying to stay positive. I mean, that's all you can do, really. The situation, of course, is still just so much in flux. I think I have some concerts at the beginning of next month without audience. But we'll see.
CF [00:00:39] Somebody was saying recently that there's a new kind of nervous for musicians. It's getting nervous to get a glass of wine, sit down, and watch your own concert. You know, it's just like a whole new affair, isn't it?
BG [00:00:55] Yes, it is. I mean, it's become a reality now. I've done a couple of streamed concerts without audience, and it's a bit bizarre, but I suppose it has its own special atmosphere. But, you know, we're all just looking forward to some kind of return to normality again.
CF [00:01:10] Well, your new recording is coming out on the 19th and it is all Liszt. And I feel like you've kind of had Liszt in your heart since you were little. Who was the first person to stir up your Liszt sensitivity?
BG [00:01:26] It was really my grandfather. He was an amateur pianist and a great lover of the music of Liszt, I think above all other composers, and a longtime member of the Liszt Society in London. And he was responsible for music in my family in a way, that's where it comes from. He really wanted to be a concert pianist. Sadly, his parents weren't very supportive and he became an accountant. But he passed on music to my mother, who became a music teacher and a piano teacher, who then taught me to play. And, you know, a lot of my formative experiences were with him taking me to piano recitals in London and introducing me to music.
[00:02:03] And I think, first of all, it was Chopin and then it was Liszt. I think probably the first piece of Liszt I heard was the famous Liebesträum, and it went from there. And he passed away at the beginning of last year. So I thought, as a way of marking that and the pandemic year, it felt appropriate, and the right time to record a CD of Liszt.
CF [00:02:23] Do you feel like the details of Liszt's life are important, that they make some difference to the way you think of his music?
BG [00:02:34] His life is so varied and fascinating. But I mean, his music inhabited so many different places. I mean, he was always innovative, which was so extraordinary about him. I mean the Sonata, of course, was very modern for its time and not quite understood at the time. But what's sort of even more remarkable is how visionary he could be as an old man with these pieces he wrote that sort of look forward to the next century with almost atonality and, you know, sort of predicting Impressionism, I guess. And what an influence he had on everyone that came after him.
CF [00:03:10] He was very generous. It seems like sometimes he gets a bad rap because of, you know, Lisztomania and the way people fell in love with him, sort of in that first part of his life.
BG [00:03:21] He's kind of the rock star. That was actually only a period of something like 10 years, I guess. But, you know, the rest of his life, he had so much money, he gave the rest of it pretty much to charity. And he had just such a huge generosity of spirit. I mean, you see it in the way that he supported other composers, I mean, through the transcriptions he made. I mean, on this CD, I finish with one of the Schubert songs. And he, you know, I think sort of brought this music back to public attention through these transcriptions. It was an important thing at the time. Just an extraordinary thing, and with this disc, I wanted to sort of give some kind of overview, I suppose, as best as I could, which, you know, was necessary in that case to include not only his original compositions, but also some of his transcriptions as well.
CF [00:04:07] So if you could drop in on some portion of his life and talk to him a little bit, which part of his life would you drop in on, do you think?
BG [00:04:16] I don't know. I mean, I just would have loved to have heard him play the piano. I mean, I suppose that's it. I mean, I suppose in a way, I would like to have been there in his prime because I would like to have heard this great musician that everyone raved about. Because, you know, it's one thing to play his music, but you just read some of the things, the way that people reacted to him and his playing, just to be able to experience that. So I suppose in a way, that's what I'd go for. I would go for the pianistic heyday just because I would want to have experienced it.
CF [00:04:45] So did you build this recording around the Liszt Sonata? I'm guessing you did. That's the main chunk here.
BG [00:04:54] Yes, the Sonata, but also, Norma, the paraphrase of Bellini's Norma. I mean, I've been playing it a bit, and I think it's a marvelous transcription. It was Ivan Davis [American pianist, 1932-2018] who sort of pushed me in the direction of it. He was desperate for me to play this piece. I think he did love Norma so much.
[00:05:15] And I learned it initially because of his urging. And I just think it's, well in all of his opera transcriptions, there's this amazing summary, an amazing kind of re-creative ability. You know, he takes the opera and summarizes it. But he does it in his own way. And he creates his own compelling narrative and rich musical tapestry with the music and using his knowledge of the keyboard to push it to its very limits. And I think this is one of the finest. So I wanted to include that. And so with these two big-boned masterpieces, [for] the rest of the disc, it felt right to fill the rest of the disc with his more lyrical, intimate works.
CF [00:06:01] If someone had never encountered Liszt and you wanted them to have this recording, what would you want them to be most struck by?
BG [00:06:09] I suppose if they never encountered Liszt, I mean, if someone knows a bit of Liszt, I mean, the thing with Liszt is people think of him as the virtuoso and they forget what a poet he was as well. But someone who didn't know Liszt at all, I don't know, I suppose you wouldn't, I mean, for someone in that position, I guess the Sonata might be a bit too much of a fat, juicy steak to give without any introduction. So I suppose I'd point them in the direction of the, you know, the Petrarch Sonnets, or, well, maybe the Berceuse. I mean, I love this Berceuse in the second version. I think it's a sort of hidden gem in his output, maybe not as often played and recorded as it should be. And he was influenced very much by the Chopin Berceuse. You can see that, I mean, just in the in the harmonies, in the key, and the sort of tonic pedal that goes almost throughout. But it's a darker nocturnal vision, the passages of delicate filigree alternate with these passages of brooding. And it builds to this wonderfully ecstatic climax before sort of dying away in this pulsating way. It's a piece of sort of ecstasy and sensuality and mystery. And it was a lovely discovery that I made recently, and I really wanted to put it on this disc.
CF [00:07:30] I love the way you speak about this music and some other music as “mercurial”. I've heard you use that word a few times and I was thinking about that word. And you love this improvisatory quality in Schumann's music and in Liszt's music. You love this sense of stuff happening unpredictably. Is that something that you that you appreciate in Liszt's music?
BG [00:07:55] Yes, I think so. I mean, even in the Sonata, I suppose, there is this narrative which unfolds over a long period of time. But at the same time, sort of the treatment of the themes is something which does seem to me to come from his abilities in improvisation, the way that the themes transform. You could imagine that happening in the moment, but then only as time progresses do you realize that it's actually part of this great master plan that he has that goes over the massive breadth and length of this piece.
CF [00:08:28] What is that opening? I mean, what are you thinking of? Those two throbs at the beginning, which you do in such a unique way, where do you take us as soon as we hear that first pluck? You know, are we in a landscape, are we in a human state, or how do you envision that?
BG [00:08:49] I suppose it's a human state. I mean, I hadn't thought of it in those terms, but it's a, I mean, it's a state of foreboding and mystery, but there's something quite troubling about it. I mean, I see those opening G's as being kind of orchestral, at least in the color that I hear with them, almost like plucked strings. And I like to experiment with this idea of maybe the bass note lingering a little longer than the others, like the lower strings would in an orchestra. But there is something threatening about it. And then the character that comes next bursts onto the scene, this kind of Faustian, defiant motive is so important for the rest of the work. The three themes come on the very first page, and then the whole of the rest of the work is built from them, in a sense.
CF [00:09:44] And it's beautiful. As things get singing and up into the higher part of the piano, there's a transparency that you, Benjamin Grosvenor, have that nobody else has. It's a very impossible-to-describe sound. And it just stops you in your tracks. And it's really different than anyone else. And it's a real joy to hear this fresh version of the Sonata. And I know it's not fresh to you, really, because you've had it for so long. But we haven't heard it this way. And I just want to thank you for that because it's spectacular.
BG [00:10:19] Thank you. That's very kind.
CF [00:10:21] So then there is this mercurial Mr. Liszt who even breathes differently than everybody else. I mean, that must feel different to play Liszt than it does anybody else. I mean, somewhere you said something about, your needing to always have a little reserve at the ready because you always have to, at least in the Sonata – there's always another downshift, you know, and there's yet another place to go, right?
BG [00:10:46] Yes. You always have to push a little bit further, and in Norma as well. I mean, you know, I suppose, I'm not going to say it's a problem, but a reality with Liszt is that there can be a lot of climactic music, and sort of pacing that in the right way that can be a challenge. And that's there in the Sonata, and it's there in Norma as well, where you have the one climax on top of another and then pacing that, which I'm sure Liszt would have done marvelously well, so that each time something new and more climactic is brought to it, is always the challenge.
CF [00:11:16] You know, it's funny because I talked to [American dramatic soprano] Jane Eaglen once, who did Norma with [conductor Claudio] Abbado, and Norma was one of her things. She sounded exactly like you. She was saying exactly the same things. You have to pace it. There's all these climaxes. It's incredibly difficult to sing, you know, and obviously the Liszt version is incredibly difficult to play.
Tell me about Ave Maria. Is there any challenge to how you play that, or is that a challenging piece in some way?
BG [00:11:51] Yes, it is. It's a piece that is much harder than it sounds, which is not necessarily what you want as a pianist. But the fact is, it has a three-hand effect all the way through. So, you know, accompaniment in both hands, but the melody there in the thumbs, somewhere between the hands. It's always a puzzle to put together that kind of thing when you're learning it. But, you know, it's just masterful piano writing from Liszt, sustaining the melody in just the right way. But it's challenging, you know, investing it with the right color and shaping the line when so much is going on. It's a very difficult piece.
CF [00:12:33] I know, it's the busiest prayer you're ever gonna say. It's easy for us to pray while we hear it. But I don't think it's so easy for the pianist to pray while he's doing it! It's nice to think about pilgrimages during a pandemic. Did you record this during the pandemic, by the way?
BG [00:12:50] I did. I did it in October. So the restrictions were a little loosened at the time. But we were sort of heading back to lockdown again at that point.
CF [00:13:00] And were you in London to record it?
BG [00:13:01] Yes, I recorded it at Queen Elizabeth Hall, which was empty. There are no concerts happening there. So it was lovely to be able to play in that space, you know, after having spent so much time in my living room to be in a hall, to make the recording, it was very special. And also, you know, there's big music on here. So having a place like that to play into was beneficial.
CF [00:13:24] Wow. That must have been quite a moment for you during this whole thing. Do you think you played it differently than you would have otherwise?
BG [00:13:33] Yeah, I have no idea. I would have to do it all again another time to know. Yeah, I mean, you know, I suppose it's unusual in retrospect because normally for a recording, I'm used to sort of having a lot of performances in the run-up to it. So it was quite a, I suppose, a different, more isolated period of preparation than I'm used to.
CF [00:14:01] Well, when you do get back to performing, some people are saying that's going to be like the Roaring 20’s when this is all over, and it's going to be madness and wonder and, you know, thousands of recitals. But you do bump into a lot of pianos, and I think I've heard you say that you kind of like the challenge of a piano that's different one day to the next. Do you still feel that way?
BG [00:14:26] Yeah, I do. I mean, ideally they'd all be good pianos! But I work with whatever I'm given, and I try to get the best from it. But, you know, each has its own voice. And inevitably, if you're playing a mixed recital program, some will work better for some pieces, and some will work better for others. But it's good to hear those colors. And I think it's good to expose yourself to different colors. I mean, I'm actually quite thankful for the fact that I have, through my whole period of study until this day, I haven't had a Steinway. I haven't owned a Steinway. I started off on a Bechstein upright, and from the age of 10 I owned this Bösendorfer that I'm using as a desk right now. And I think that's good in a way, because at home I have a different color to what I hear, what I normally hear in a concert hall, because in a concert hall it's most likely to be a Steinway. You know, there are Yamahas and other instruments pop up, but it's normally a Steinway. So I feel like, hopefully, that has sort of expanded the colors that I hear and that I want to get from a piano. I mean, I do think that's the case, that if you're exposed to something new, something you haven't heard before, and then your brain knows it and you can sort of find it from other instruments, then. So I suppose if I had advice for young pianists, it would be to try to play as many instruments as you can because I think it could be beneficial just to expose yourself to these different sounds that they can produce.
CF [00:15:55] I remember reading that you are an ambassador for Music Masters in London. Were you still doing that before the pandemic, trying to interact with children and help them hear music?
BG [00:16:08] I worked with them, I mean, they used to be called London Music Masters, and I became an ambassador in 2013. And I did quite a lot in those years. And then I guess I was touring a lot and I hadn't found much time to work with them. But they’ve now become Music Masters, dropped the London bit, and it sort of expanded and [they’re] working on teacher-training programs and things. And I'm hoping to do a lot more with them in the future. I mean, I'm recording tomorrow a piece for a sort of online fundraising concert. So my role will be in that kind of thing. But as soon as the restrictions let up and I can go into schools, it's something I would really like to do. I mean, the experiences I did have a few years ago with that were incredibly rewarding, just seeing how the children responded to music and how enthusiastic they were about it. And I just sort of hope I can be as useful to them as I'm able to be.
CF [00:17:07] So you're keeping in touch with friends and with Zoom and technology – is that working?
BG [00:17:12] Yeah, we're quite used to that now. It's been a long time with this, this existence that we have. So, yeah. Trying to keep in touch with people and I'm here with my partner who's a violinist. So, you know, we're able to play together. But I suppose what I look forward to most of all is being able to make chamber music with other players again very soon.
In the first lockdown towards the end, I decided to set up a chamber festival based in southeast London because, for the same reason, really, I just felt so isolated and frustrated by the online only existence. And not many concerts were being planned at that point. So I thought, well, why don't we give it a go? So we put on a four-day festival here. And that was that was lovely. It was one of the most rewarding experiences I've had musically, I'd say. And it was just building something for yourself and knowing that you did it all. And for it to go well, of course. If it had been a disaster, maybe it would be different. But we did it with a socially-distanced audience. And well, we're planning this year as well, and hopefully it will be a thing for the future, sort of built out of a dark time.
CF [00:18:31] I saw pictures. Everybody looked so happy in those pictures! I thought, how is this pandemic? It looks very happy.
BG [00:18:37] Yeah, it was, it was a great week for some, you know, friends and some people I hadn't met before. And a nice audience. I mean, we basically sold out, and we couldn't have that many people because we had to do the seating map every morning. And it was complicated because, you know, you have groups of one and two and three and four, and you have to find, like a jigsaw puzzle, a way of putting them so that none of them are anywhere near each other. And it presented a lot of different challenges. But it all went well and it was very rewarding indeed.
CF [00:19:09] I think the last time we saw you, you had just done the Dances album. And so it's been a while. But this album is a breath of love, and we thank you so much for it. We're excited that it's coming out soon. It is a joy to talk to you. I hope you're still cooking and coming up with new things to do in your isolation.
BG [00:19:28] Yes. I mean, actually recently I've just been sightreading loads of music. For some reason, I don't do that enough. I always think I must practice, I must perfect this. But the idea of just putting scores on the piano and bashing them out...
CF [00:19:43] There's a story of Brahms sitting and playing Schubert and just weeping while he was sightreading Schubert. I think that was the story. Well, that's wonderful, and there's an ocean of piano music, there's no doubt about it.
BG [00:19:57] There definitely is.
CF [00:19:57] Well, all our best to all of you. And I'm glad you've got a support system. And we look forward to the great breakout when you're back in front of big audiences again.
BG [00:20:05] Thanks very much.