Benjamin Grosvenor may be only 20, but it’s a long time since we had a Southbank debut as keenly awaited as this. Ever since he hit the limelight last year - as the youngest-ever soloist to play in the opening Prom - he’s been trumpeted as British pianism’s brightest hope; this autumn he’s been deluged with awards.
But his performance style, like his trademark red shirt, is already so well established that it has the charm of familiarity: the other side of the coin is that he routinely programmes surprises, like a conjuror pulling rabbits out of a hat. At the Queen Elizabeth Hall the rabbits were reserved for after the interval, with a first half devoted to Bach and Chopin; dance would be the connecting thread.
Bach’s Partita No 4 in D major lent itself ideally to his clean, firm touch. The ornamentation of the Ouverture was wonderfully precise, and the alternating runs and chordal passages in the Allemande had a pervasive sweetness; the melody of the Sarabande seemed to float in the air like perfume which the Gigue duly dispelled in a whirl of muscular energy. But with Chopin’s ‘Polonaise in F sharp minor Op 44’ and his ‘Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise Brillante’ Grosvenor was less comfortable.
He moved nimbly between the polarities of mailed-fist force and ethereal delicacy, but these works felt too dutifully-constructed, and also under-characterised, as though he was still feeling his way towards his own interpretation. But he maintained an amazing technical control throughout.
Everything else he played came up band-box fresh, partly thanks to its sheer unfamiliarity. The mazurkas written by the teenage Scriabin offered a fascinating glimpse of that composer’s gestating harmonic style, and the same went for the ‘8 Valses poeticos’ by the equally young Granados.
All these pieces hovered between the salon and the ballroom, with Grosvenor’s innate taste preventing any lurches into schmaltz. As a final bonne bouche we got Schulz-Evier’s ‘Blue Danube’ extravaganza, and here Grosvenor was in his element, clothing his theme in crazy clouds of diaphanous figurations. Three encores - an Albeniz-Godowsky tango, Liszt’s ‘Gnomenreigen’ played like the wind, and a high-octane boogie - had the hall on its feet.
What next? With virtuosity of this calibre, allied to a probing musical intelligence, the sky’s the limit.