Jan 17th 2015

Hélène Grimaud: a stunning recital in Bordeaux

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”

 here.

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.




To follow what's new on Facts & Arts please click here.



     

 


This article is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Music Reviews

Sep 24th 2018
The rich culture of the proud and ancient Basque people is sadly underexposed outside their homeland, a remote bi-national region where Southwest France meets northern Spain. Their language, Euskara, is a world in a bubble with no relationship to other living languages. Most outside interest in recent decades has sprung from the sometimes-violent Basque independence movement. Basque music, however, does travel well across cultures, and is worth a detour. The French sisters Katia and Marielle Labèque, born in Bayonne, grew up with Basque melodies and lyrics in their ears. Now an established two-piano duo, their new CD (KML Recordings) Amoria” groups14 disparate pieces of Basque music they researched over several years. It is a departure from their usual classical repertoire.
Sep 11th 2018
I know several professional pianists who will admit under pressure that they find their work ultimately unsatisfying. Not because of the crowded marketplace, the dreary practice rooms, the clapped-out pianos or too many exhausting tours. No, they are tired of something more basic — the endless repetition of notes penned by someone else. True artists seek self-expression, artistic adventure. They feel the urge to “own” their work. But written music places strict limits on all but the most marginal departures from notation. Some musicians eventually realize they are mere messengers whose teachers steer them relentlessly back to the page. This may explain why so many pianists and other professional musicians also paint.
Sep 7th 2018
With a large cast, full orchestra, and incredible jazz-inflected music, “Porgy and Bess” stands alone as the one American opera that is recognized around the world. Written by George Gershwin and premiered in 1935 on Broadway, it had to wait until mid-1980s to become a standard of the operatic repertoire. The jazz idiom that Gershwin used was surely one of the reasons that “Porgy and Bess” was adopted slowly by the operatic world. But another roadblock was the story, which told about the love between a crippled beggar, Porgy, and a drug-addicted woman, Bess, who live in an impoverished African-American community in the South.
Sep 5th 2018
Frederic Chopin left detailed markings of tempo, dynamics, phrasing, pedaling, even some fingerings, for his 21 Nocturnes to guide interpreters. Yet no two versions – and there are dozens of them -- are anything like the same. The essence of playing Chopin today is deciding how far to veer, how sharply to swerve, from the master’s ideas today without losing sight of his artistic intentions. The player must ask, “When does Chopin cease to be Chopin?” Now comes the rising French pianist François Dumont with a stunning new version that sets him apart (Aevea Classics). PICTURE: Dumont by Johnson.
Sep 5th 2018
Princeton University in the United States is best known for its big thinkers, top scientists and heavyweight historians but now is embarking on a determined effort to make a splash in the arts. Princeton’s new Lewis Center of the Arts is going about it in the most American manner, with millions of dollars upfront investment and a business plan to attract young talent into its music program. Nothing is left to chance. This fall, a new crop of music students have full access to 48 freshly minted Steinway pianos, a large enough stock to attract global attention among pianophiles.
Jul 19th 2018
San Francisco Opera’s revival of its Ring Cycle got off to a rousing start with a top notch performance of “Das Rheingold” at the War Memorial Opera House on June12. The production featured outstanding performances from top to bottom by an exceptional cast and new video projections that were even better than the ones used back in 2011.......
Mar 26th 2018

Johann Sebastian Bach’s B Minor Mass, performed at Symphony Hall on Friday (March 23) and again on Sunday (March 25), was delivered in impressive Baroque style by the Handel+Haydn Society orchestra and chorus.

Mar 15th 2018

The Brahms Scherzo Op. 4 opens with a delicate and playful theme, then carries us along on waves of emotion swinging from the filigree, to the lyrical, the thunderous, and back to the delicate.

Mar 9th 2018

Perhaps enough time has passed since the death of the famous French pedagogue Nadia Boulanger to step back and question her musical sainthood. After all, she was only human. 

Feb 21st 2018

A new “electronic opera” from Ireland, “Heresy”, broke new ground in contemporary opera a couple of years ago, bringing together Irish vocal talent and the synthesized music of much-decorated composer Roger Doyle.

Feb 4th 2018

Elegant, poised and deeply musical Ran Jia has brought a new freshness to the Franz Schubert piano sonatas, a phenomenal achievement considering how often they have been performed by the greatest pianists of the past 75 years.

Jan 31st 2018

American expat pianist David Lively found happiness in Paris as a teen-aged piano prodigy and got so busy performing and studying  -- with an Alfred  Cortot associate -- that he ended up making his life in France, a “different planet” culturally, he says, compared to that of his native land. 

Jan 26th 2018

When young French pianist François Dumont appeared at the Salle Gaveau in Paris recently, the critics embraced him without reserve. One wrote that his recital “confirmed his place in the family of the best musicians in France”.

Jan 13th 2018

Nearly two hours of Debussy’s solo piano music at one sitting can be, for some, too much impressionistic color to digest. And indeed a woman beside me fell asleep during the twelve Préludes, Book One.

Dec 30th 2017

If I were to help a new listener grapple with Charles Ives’s Piano Sonata No. 2, “Concord, Mass., 1840-1860”, I would share my story of first seeing the score’s opening page.

Nov 29th 2017

Piano practice is like having a dog. If one has lived long enough with such an unnecessary but at the same time critical circumstance, one wonders how others live without it.

Nov 29th 2017

In the world of classical music trios, there are few combinations as natural as the cello, guitar and piano. Operating mostly in the same register, attacking and retreating equally, the instruments can blend beautifully if played with discipline and heart. 

Nov 3rd 2017

A California polymath has electrified the music world with his images of classical music in visual form, capturing more than 165 million hits on his Internet postings in just a few years.  Only pop singers or weird videos do better.