CAMBRIDGE — Benjamin Grosvenor called his first recording “This & That,” and that title could have applied to the Celebrity Series recital the 21-year-old British pianist gave Tuesday evening at Longy School of Music. Mendelssohn’s Andante & Rondo capriccioso, Schubert’s G-flat Impromptu, and Schumann’s “Humoreske” were followed, after intermission, by Frederic Mompou’s “Paisajes,” two of Nikolai Medtner’s 38 skazki, Ravel’s “Valses nobles et sentimentales” in the original piano version, and Liszt’s Gounod paraphrase “Valse de Faust.” It was a geographically diverse program, from Catalonia to Russia, of pieces one hardly ever hears, and it attested to Grosvenor’s range.
The performance, moreover, attested to his considerable gifts. He possesses a forthright touch, a firm sense of line, a big dynamic range, and a technique that made even the finger-busting Liszt sound like child’s play. What he doesn’t yet have is a distinctive musical personality. The Mendelssohn and the Schubert both received sensitive readings that never made them sound like salon pieces. But they were cautiously shaped, and the Mendelssohn could have been more melting, the Schubert — particularly that glorious opening melody — more rapt.
“Humoreske” is one of Schumann’s greatest piano works, and one of his least played. He told his future wife, Clara, that he was “laughing and crying” when he wrote it, and the piece, with its many brief sections, is a challenge to integrate. Here the opening “Einfach” section was careful, almost static, and later “Einfach and zart” was restless rather than simple and tender. Grosvenor did embody the elusive innerness of “Innig,” but the extroverted moments of the piece were earnest and stormy; the eccentric humor of Schumann’s favorite authors, Jean Paul and E.T.A. Hoffmann, escaped him.
“Valses nobles et sentimentales” was a bigger disappointment, neither noble nor sentimental but heavy-handed — hammer-like at times — and hard-toned, with little of Ravel’s bittersweet gaiety or charm or wit. At times Grosvenor seemed to be playing the piano rather than the music. And though the programming of Mompou’s three landscape pieces and Medtner’s two folk tales was imaginative, they were little more than pleasant interludes. The Liszt, however, found Grosvenor in his element, thumping out the waltz, skipping and sighing, tossing off pearly scales and trills and rippling glissandos. It made me wish he had programmed Liszt’s B-minor Sonata.
As encores, he offered the Godowsky arrangement of Isaac Albéniz’s “Tango” and Morton Gould’s “Boogie Woogie Etude.” There’s no question about his ability to play the piano, or to entertain. Perhaps for a 21-year-old that’s enough.