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The Schumanns, Brahms, and the One-and-Only Grosvenor

Benjamin Grosvenor, with his left hand resting on a piano, tilts his head toward the camera through a raised piano lid while his body faces towards his right.
Andrej Grilc

On his new CD, Benjamin Grosvenor navigates the interior worlds of Robert and Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms with heartbreaking empathy and a golden sound.

The last time I spoke with pianist Benjamin Grosvenor, he’d just finished a very personal recording of pieces by Franz Liszt, recorded in the strange emptiness of Covid lockdown in London. He crafted it lovingly, with a spellbinding blend of intimacy and spaciousness.

Now that the world has been set back into motion, Grosvenor has a new CD, this time featuring the mercurial and episodic music of Robert Schumann, along with pieces by Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms.

The centerpiece is Robert’s Kreisleriana, written during the emotional time when he and Clara were petitioning the courts to allow their marriage, while her father remained vehemently opposed. The inspiration for the piece comes from writer E.T.A. Hoffmann’s fictional genius Johannes Kreisler, a moody conductor who appears frequently in Hoffmann’s output, including in the novel The Life and Opinions of a Tomcat Murr. Given that Robert’s life would end at the age of 46 in an asylum for the mentally ill, it feels like an eerie and tragic parallel that the Kreisler character was obsessed with the thought that madness was lying in wait for him. “Play my Kreisleriana sometimes!” Robert once wrote to Clara, “There’s a very wild love in a few movements, and your life, and mine, and many of your glances.”

Along with other smaller jewels by Robert Schumann, the CD also features three heartbreaking intermezzi by Clara and Robert’s dear friend Johannes Brahms. Brahms called them “lullabies for his sorrows.”

With Clara Schumann’s sad and elegantly prismatic Variations on a Theme of Robert Schumann, the trio of soulful composer-pianists is complete.

Benjamin Grosvenor, now 30 years old, finds his way into all of this music in a touching and utterly honest way. Listen on the player above to hear excerpts from the recording as he describes his vision of these pieces that he loves so much.


[Music begins playing, and continues in background]

Cathy Fuller Benjamin Grosvenor, congratulations on the new recording! I would tell everyone who picks up this recording to listen to it when the house has gone quiet and when you have some real time to yourself. Because even, you know, even when it's thundering along, it's whispering these incredible secrets. And that is the mystery of Robert Schumann especially.

So the big piece at the center is Robert Schumann's Kreisleriana. And I think a lot of people might not know this piece. And I'd ask you first, Benjamin, what is helpful to know about Schumann and about these eight episodes that make up this piece? [music fades out]

Benjamin Grosvenor Well, there's a lot to say about this piece. It has literary inspiration. Schumann loved the works of E.T.A. Hoffmann, and Hoffmann had this creation -- this figure, Johannes Kreisler, who Schumann really identified with. He was a kind of romanticized version of the tortured musician, tortured artist who was prone to flights of fancy and mood swings and who had really high ideals, who had a reverence for the music of the past, of Bach and Beethoven, and who, you know, abhorred the music of the time and the artistic philistines that he was surrounded by. And so all of that's there in the music. And Schumann really identified with this figure. I mean, I think there's also like, I believe that Kreisler had this kind of love and affection for his employer’s niece, which sort of has connections to a kind of forbidden love, which has connections to Robert’s own relationship with Clara. So there's a lot there, a lot of similarities between the two.

And there's this funny episode with Kreisler – like, he was at a patron’s tea party, and he had the score of the Goldberg Variations, and they asked him to play it for them, thinking that it was sort of a variation on a popular theme by this Mr. Goldberg that they would enjoy. And then he sits down and plays the whole thing to them and then starts improvising wildly at the end of it. And so, you know, he was a figure that felt very misunderstood by the people around him.

And so how does that translate into this music? I mean, as in a lot of Schumann, you have this kind of sense of there being two voices, Florestan and Eusebius, and it’s really here that you have these — he alternates between movements in G Minor [music begins playing in background], with the first movement (which) starts with this extraordinary energy, and it's a bit like a kind of a Bach prelude, but a highly dissonant one --

[virtuosic music begins playing, then fades into background]

And then movements that are more intimate in B-flat major.

[Gentle music begins playing, fades out]

But even then, within these intimate movements, there are these sort of surprise sections that come out of nowhere which are little bursts of energy. And the other interesting thing about the Kreisler novel is one where, and I hadn't read it myself, but from what I understand of it, the idea is that the landlord's cat is writing his biography, but he's writing it on pages that Kreisler has been writing on himself. So there’s this disconnected narrative between what the cat writes and then what Kreisler himself writes …

Cathy Fuller It’s so strange ...

Benjamin Grosvenor So strange. But I think that that comes through like in, you know, in the second piece, which is maybe the most substantial, is the longest of the set, the most substantial, and the one that Schumann wrote first, and it's incredibly lyrical and longing and beautiful, and then suddenly you have this sparkling, energetic interjection and you could imagine maybe this is the cat …

[Energetic music begins playing, fades out]

Cathy Fuller Well, let me ask you, if we could just start at the beginning of the Kreisleriana — this explosion:

[Highly virtuosic and energetic music begins playing, fades into background]

How do you calibrate that? It's so fantastic when you start this piece, but it is like an explosion. Is that hard to begin?

Benjamin Grosvenor Yes. It is hard to begin. Yeah, because you want it to be in medias res -- it's like you've spoken. It's like you've, you know, you've opened the door and Kreisler’s sitting at the piano, and he's already improvising something – you happened to have just walked in.

Cathy Fuller That's great. Yeah. Now what? After we get past this initial explosion, we get to the piece that you were talking about [music fades out]. The second one. It repeats a lot. And what it seems to me that you do is it always sounds like it's asking the question a little differently each time you play it. And there's a little sense of “Is there an answer? Well, let me ask this again. Is there an answer? I'm going to ask again … Is there an answer?” That's what it feels like. It's beautifully done. It's very different than I've heard it before. [Pastoral music begins playing, fades into background]

Benjamin Grosvenor Well, yeah. So I mean, I thought about that because it is quite repetitive and but there's much to explore in terms of voicing. I mean, the counterpoint is quite dense. There's a lot going on. There's things that you can highlight one time and different things you can highlight another time. And there are so many colors to explore and things you can do with the pedal. And yeah, there's a lot to vary, and I thought that, yeah, as you say, if you do that then it has an interesting effect because it feels like you're saying something differently each time.

Cathy Fuller The sixth one is so beautiful. What can you say about that one? It sometimes feels like Schumann is going to maybe die, but then he doesn't. And there's always that sense that maybe we're going to lose everybody.

[Soft, lilting music begins playing, fades into background]

Do you know what I mean?

Benjamin Grosvenor Yeah. It has great sadness in it [music stops]. I mean, it feels a little bit like a lullaby, with this kind of rocking motion that the rhythm has. And but, you know, the sort of serenity in the piece that it starts with is very short-living. So you have this tender beginning, and then suddenly you have this interjection of a kind of Bach-like, but very defiant writing ...

[Music plays, continues in background]

and then it just it goes in such an unexpected direction, loses itself— [music continues]

and then suddenly the theme emerges in the bass—
[music continues, fades out]

Yeah. There's such longing in this. I mean, he said this work was all about him and Clara and their lives together and had many of her glances in it. And you, I think there's a lot of that sense of unfulfillment and longing for something that wasn't permitted at the time, because they had this problem with a father who didn't want them to marry and so on. So, you know, a lot of that is there in the music. And he wanted to dedicate this piece to her, but she said, Oh, please don't, because then I won't be able to play it because my father won’t approve -- so he dedicated it to Chopin in the end.

Actually, I just want to mention that in the previous movement, there's an alternate ending. There's 2 endings to the movement. And one of them, you can you can resolve the D major chords with a staccato G minor chord. And the other one, you hold the D major chord and it remains unresolved …

[Music plays, leads to unresolved ending, then begins following movement and fades into background]

And I elected to do this because I really thought the effect of it was quite powerful, because that harmony then becomes suspended for the first few bars of the next work [music stops], and it creates this feeling of something unresolved and is one part. Although it's a quite a fragmented piece, it then feels like these two movements are connected, and one has a relation to what comes next.

Cathy Fuller When you're in these dreamy sections that are so ethereal and off the grid [laughs], is it easy to get lost in them? What's it like to play these pieces?

Benjamin Grosvenor It's difficult, actually, because you really feel like you have to, when you play it in a performance, you have to inhabit the narrative. And yet it's quite a peculiar narrative to inhabit. And so sometimes you, you know, for example, as things repeat in the second one, it is easy to get a bit lost in it because, I mean, it just goes in so many directions all the time. And it's quite, yeah, it's quite a different piece to perform to say, you know, a piano sonata or, I mean — oh, I just happened to be playing it, I think I did it on a tour alternating with the Liszt Sonata. And I thought it was very interesting because the Liszt, like, you know, was that you press the “start” button and then it takes you with it. Like the narrative is there and you go, you go along with it and it's not, you know, once you really have it in your system, it's not difficult to just perform it because, as I say, it just, it just seems to emanate. But with the Schumann, every time, it's like you really have to — it’s like he still takes you by surprise every time you perform it. You can't be in autopilot and just let the piece take over, you have to just be there in every bar.

Cathy Fuller Yeah, I imagine your audience just drawing into you, just coming into the piano. Well, on this recording, Clara has a voice and Clara was so important to Robert, they finally did get married. Tell me a little bit about her variations on his theme. What is that theme?

Benjamin Grosvenor The theme is the same theme that Brahms uses in his variations that he wrote a year after this. It's from his Bünte Blätter.

[Theme begins playing, fades into background]

I think this is a wonderful set of variations. It really shows Clara’s talents as a pianist [music stops] and her understanding of the instrument and the possibilities for variation of color and texture.

[Music begins playing, continues in background]

But, you know, she was, in the way she wrote harmonically, she was, you could say, much more, probably, more conservative than Brahms was. And yet there's so much glorious subtlety in the way that she varies things throughout these variations, and countermelodies and variations in the harmony that are really magical and intimate.

[Music returns to foreground, then fades to background]

I really wanted to include it. I think it's a work that deserves to be heard and played [music ends].

Cathy Fuller I also am in love with the “Evening Song” that that you have on this. This is an actual song by Robert Schumann, that is so sweet and fragile. Basically -- the text when it was a song is all about how hushed the evening is.

And there's one beautiful phrase that says, Now the stars arise in majesty, in the encircling sky, The golden chariot of time passes on its assured way. And your way through the night shall be safely guided, too. And the other great line is the footfalls of passing angels. That's how hushed the evening is.

[Soft and expressive music begins playing, continues in background]

It has this interior hushed thing. What did you do to it? Other people have done things to this song, right? Everybody tries to play this song, whether they're oboists or cellists, I think, isn't that so?

Benjamin Grosvenor Yeah, well, I know it as a work for four hands. It's one of his 12 pieces for small and large children. And yeah, there's lots of arrangements. I've played it a lot with violin. It is an easy transcription to make for two hands—I mean, you can basically play the four-hand work with two hands while only changing a few chords here and there so you can keep it under the fingers. But you're right, it's a beautiful piece, it's like a prayer, really, it’s incredibly atmospheric and has this great sense of stillness and peace, and it's very intimate and moving.

[Music continues, resolves gently]

Cathy Fuller Well, the “footfalls of passing angels” is, in many ways how I would describe your soft sound. When you were doing this in the studio, was it a happy circumstance to be playing such intimate Schumann for a microphone?

Benjamin Grosvenor Yeah. Yeah, I enjoyed it. I mean [laughing], recording is slightly weird, to be honest, It’s always going to be that way when, you know, it’s like there should be some people there listening … but eventually they are. And you have to imagine that they're there when you're playing and you're playing it to someone.

Cathy Fuller Imagine your future listeners. Right?

Benjamin Grosvenor Yeah.

Cathy Fuller There's people behind the glass and stuff …
with headphones on and stuff. Some people invite people into the studio, but you don't do that?

Benjamin Grosvenor No, I don’t do that. I enjoy the recording process, though. I try to be kind of experimental in the studio to set down different ideas and to treat it quite differently to a performance. Because, you know, you do have this gift there to be able to do something again. And then, but then the agony comes when you have to choose what you want to put on the CD.

Cathy Fuller You’ve got your life ahead of you, right? You can re-record them, right? You can always do things again. Many people do.

The Brahms at the end of the recording, the three intermezzi written late. They're like condensed Brahms. It's like everything that's Brahms is in these little pieces. How do you feel about those pieces?

Benjamin Grosvenor I mean, they’re, yeah, they’re extraordinarily intimate – they’re like monologues. I mean, he described them as lullabies to his sorrows, it’s him brooding on his life and all the things that have happened in an incredibly personal way. And, you know, he was doing a dialog with Clara and he sent them to her, she was the first person to hear them. And her letters say they're so beautiful but terribly sad.

[Soft music plays gently, continues in background]

The first is this lullaby which is very pure and innocent and beautiful and it has a central section where it just gets lost. And it's like someone mourning, really.

[Music continues in foreground, fades out]

And then the sighing figures of the second one …

[Slightly faster music begins playing, continues in background]

And yeah, there's a sense of real grief here. And I thought it -- I like the contrast of this with, alongside Kreisleriana [music fades out] on the disc -- that this Kreisleriana is the work of a young man and sort of teeming with, with energy and emotion. And then by contrast, Brahms brooding over and contemplating the life that has passed.

Cathy Fuller The whole thing just unravels in a beautiful way. And you've put it together so beautifully. And I just know that it will move people to tears. And I see you're roaming around with the Schumann Fantasy now [jaunty music begins playing in background], and that's one of the great pieces of the world, too. So we're so glad that you're representing Robert Schumann, because your temperament is perfect for it. And we thank you so much.

Benjamin Grosvenor Oh, thanks, you’re so kind. Yeah, I love his music.

[Jaunty music continues in foreground, concludes]

Cathy Fuller is a Host and Producer for CRB.