Hélène Grimaud: a stunning recital in Bordeaux

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a music writer and critic with special interest in piano. He spent nine years on the board of the London International Piano Competition and has written extensively on music for leading publications, including the International New York Times, Clavier Companion, The Washington Times, American Spectator and the website Facts & Arts. He spent four years in Moscow as a correspondent and also worked as a journalist in Paris, London and New York. 17.01.2015

French pianist Hélène Grimaud returned to Bordeaux Friday night (Jan. 16) after a five-year absence, offering a program notable for its concentration on 20th century music.  She is expanding her repertoire ever closer to present day composers and her fan base is loving it. 

Her last appearance in Bordeaux ended dramatically when she bolted from the stage, claiming hallucinations during a Beethoven piece. If the packed Auditorium (just under 4,000 capacity) hoped for another drama, they were perhaps disappointed. In its place, however, they were captivated by nearly two hours of bravura playing in the Grimaud mode – vigorous, extreme dynamics overlaid with a dazzling technique that throws caution to the four winds.

Hélène Grimaud by Michael Johnson, the author

I found her performance exhilarating, as did the wildly enthusiastic audience, some of whom gave her a standing ovation, a rarity in France. She rewarded the crowd with several curtain calls and two lovely encores. 

Ms. Grimaud is a spiritual, introspective and cerebral pianist whose programs  – unlike so many random concert pairings these days – are structured to cohere in musical terms. Her sober stage presence is in welcome contrast to the leaping theatrics and frightening coiffures of many younger pianists. This control has helped her win a cult following, much in evidence at this recital. When she strode onstage in white trousers, white shoes and a white cape-like top, some audience members audibly whispered “Angelic”. At first I thought “Night nurse”, but I gave in to the intended effect.

The first half was built around ideas of water, unexpectedly appropriate given the evening’s rainy weather.  Piano repertoire does not lack for waterflow, dancing fountains and glimmering oceans as inspiration and so she had much literature to choose from. 

She opened with the third Encore of Luciano Berio’s Wasserklavier, a contemporary evocation of liquid sounds, broken up with a pleasant dissonance. Other highlights in the first half were Toru Takemitsu’s Rain Tree Sketch II, composed in homage to Olivier Messiaen and artfully marrying sounds of east and west.

Next she tackled the Isaac Albeniz Almeria from the second of four volumes of his Iberia Spanish sketches. Almeria, capital of Andalusia, is a Mediterranean port city, hence the water dimension. A sparkling Franz Liszt Les Jeux d’eau de la Villa d’Este, a Grimaud showpiece, was executed with her trademark ebullition. 

And finally came an eerie rendering of Claude Debussy’s dreamy La Cathédral engloutie, so evocative that one could not mistake the underwater image near the end. I found it even more sensitive and certainly more suggestive than Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli’s classic recorded version.

But all this music was a mere prelude to her signature piece, the monumental Brahms Sonata No. 2 in F sharp minor, actually intended by the youthful Brahms to be well beyond the pianistic abilities of women performers. She clearly feels at home with this composition. Re-entering the stage after intermission, her hands hit the keyboard before her derrière hit the bench. 

Daunting octaves and trills, violence in heavily dramatic passages, exhaust even the most athletic performers. But Ms. Grimaud, Martha Argerich and a brace of young Chinese young women such as Wei Yung Chang have long since proven modern pianism is not a man’s world after all.

It is a commonplace to say that Ms. Grimaud is not to everyone’s taste. She speaks her musical mind and is far too much an individual at the keyboard to win a piano competition today. She is equally herself in her personal life, down to her choice of wolves as a species needing protection. 

Some critics have roasted her playing, including one prominent Frenchman who, she recalls in her book Wild Harmonies, described her a few years ago as a “little goat with no taste, good only for jumping about onstage”. Later in her career he changed his mind. At first her critical reception was “a nightmare” but now, she says, “I take the decrees of the press in stride.”

Ms. Grimaud was not available for an interview during her Bordeaux stopover but this extended conversation in English covers most of the questions I would have put to her.

 

Ms. Grimaud spoke of her lifelong love of Brahms in her book. She said she found “pain bordering on ecstasy” in his works.

“Brahms composes the way a sublime shooting star writes its dizzying arc, she wrote. He is bound to nothing, and answers to no demand If he finds an impediment in his way, he smashes it and returns to his heavenly abysses.” She believes Brahms describes, “note after note”, a life “voluntarily lived apart and devoted exclusively to the essential”. 

During her recent stay in Germany she discovered the largely forgotten artist and sculptor Max Klinger, a Brahms contemporary, who produced a collection of 41 engravings interpreting Brahms’s oeuvre under the title Brahmsphantasie. His engraving of the Brahms song Alte Liebe seems particularly well-conceived.

Partly through her Klinger research, she found a way to relate music and art, a convergence that helped her explain her love of Brahms. Klinger illustrates “the solitude of the artist and his (or her) profound joy in the torment of the elements”.

In her second passion – the protection of wolves, she draws parallels between wolves and women. They share “certain mental characteristics: sharpness of senses, playfulness and an extreme sense of devotion”, she writes in her book. 

Hélène Grimaud’s strength has always been her individuality. Music-lovers who enjoy being surprised, who appreciate an artist’s effort to make every concert and recital a new experience, will continue to line up for her recitals and concerts.

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