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Concert Report/ Hélène Grimaud

img  Tobias Fischer

Mozart: Piano Sonata No.8 in A Minor, K.310 (300d)
Berg: Piano Sonata, Op.1
- Intermission -

Liszt: Piano Sonata in B Minor, S.178
Bartók: Six Romanian Folk Dances, BB68

Hélène Grimaud, Piano

    When temperature conditions drop beyond tolerable levels, one anticipates this could have serious repercussions in concert attendance, let alone commuting ticket holders who are out-of-towners. One exception took place yesterday at the Koerner Hall, as the near full-house occupancy would have defeated any speculations to a poor turn-out. In fact, one audience member who presented himself at the recital drove all the way out from Hamilton in the midst of poor weather conditions, just to see our featured pianist in action. Speaking of dedication and support in the Arts, this would be a fine example.

   Any classical music lovers certainly would not be unfamiliar with the name Hélène Grimaud, the pianist who presented her long-overdue recital in Toronto. Not only her charm, but her pianistic faculty has attracted her to major concert venues in Japan, Lucerne, London, New York, and now, in Toronto’s year-old Koerner Hall. Ms. Grimaud last appeared in this Canadian city in 2007 [as a soloist with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, in the Brahms Second Piano Concerto]. Time has swiftly gone by, while her musical accolades continue to blossom with (re-)new(-ed) partnerships with Claudio Abbado, Thomas Quasthoff, Vladimir Jurowski, and Canada’s very own Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Presenters at the Koerner Hall certainly saw a perfect opportunity, when notified about Ms. Grimaud’s North American tour schedule in Jan-Feb 2011, and invited the pianist for her début appearance with the Royal Conservatory. In fact, her solo recital this Sunday afternoon is a recapitulation of the same programme in her latest Deutsche Grammophon release, known as Resonances. In the liner notes of her CD, Ms. Grimaud explains to Wilhelm Sinkovicz that Resonances is “a journey into the interior and to the outer limits … that involves echoes and pre-echoes.” Touching on this very theme with music spanning three periods, from Classical to Early 20th Century, Ms. Grimaud performs the piano works of Mozart, Berg, Liszt and Bartók in this sequence with a possible goal: to explore the widest sonorities of the modern instrument and to demonstrate the artist’s ability to use such sonorities to create the feeling of anticipation and resolution in music. If this is indeed a theme that propagated her choice of programme for this recital, Ms. Grimaud certainly has the author convinced: Complimented by the acoustics of the Koerner Hall and facilitated by the Steinway instrument, Ms. Grimaud presents each work in her program with imagination and episodes of illumination; albeit to varying degree of effectiveness.

   The Sonata in A Minor K.310, a staple considered by the ears of pianophiles, is presented in a heavy-weighted style of execution by Ms. Grimaud. Her interpretation is one that evokes a picturesque imagery of darkness and intense emotional instability, and arguably, suits fittingly to the key of A minor. This intensity, enhanced in part by the innate dark sonority of the instrument especially in its mid- to low- register, is further amplified by the pianist’s tedious efforts on the pedals throughout the work. Particularly, in sections of the Allegro and Presto movements, she produces an extraneous layer of sound colours on top of the score notation. However, this translates itself into various degrees, especially to listeners seated on the main floor. At times, the author feels Ms. Grimaud has succumbed to over-pedaling and deployed a harshness of tone-playing. Having this as a caveat, there are creative moments of spontaneity in Ms. Grimaud’s approach that warrant as much commendation, most noticeably in the various repetitions of the opening thematic motif in the Allegro movement. In stark contrast to her album, Ms. Grimaud toys with this rhythmical figure via an added emphasis on the ornaments, each of which increases with further drawback in speed in its new identity, which seem to take on a witty quality, almost to produce a feeling of anticipation of what is to follow. In other sections of the piece, particularly the second movement Andante, she gives spacious room for introspection and shapes untiringly the necessity of a cantabile line [some might argue whether this is too "serious" for a 22 year-old Mozart; the author would conjure this is one of many evidences to Mozart’s capacities]. Whenever the music necessitates, Ms. Grimaud would glare upwards as to gather the focus of the mind, the heart, and the music in unison. In moments of extreme quietude, Ms. Grimaud would delve her entire upper torso close to the keyboard for an extreme focus in sound projection. In these instances, one may identify a decisive link in similarity between the piano music of Mozart and Franz Schubert, particularly in both composers’ choice in using the piano as a vocal instrument. 

     As one of the earliest student compositions of Alban Berg, his Piano Sonata Op.1 is next presented by Ms. Grimaud with some minimal assistance on the piano score. In the author’s view, the Berg Sonata illustrates at best how Ms. Grimaud’s familiarity on performing Ravel’s piano works have been instrumental to influence her reading of Berg – an interpretation defined by rhythmical flexibility, integrative harmony and late-romantic-to-almost-jazz-like improvisations. All-in-all, the Berg Sonata represents at best Ms. Grimaud’s idea of creating watercolours on the piano.

     If one was to ask a concert pianist which are the “top three” piano compositions of the Romantic period that are “a must” for an artist’s repertoire, the Liszt Piano Sonata most certainly reigns in the first of ranks. Ms. Grimaud faces the innate technical and musical challenges, but she attempts to overcome them with adeptness in her live performance, as much as in her studio recording on the album. Rather than aiming to please her audience as a flashy virtuoso, Ms. Grimaud is geared to satisfy keen ears among the audience by presenting the large architectural soundscape of this music by Liszt. Liszt, as much as he was a superb [and often, unjustly, referred to as a demonic] virtuoso, is in fact a dramatist of the piano en par to Robert Schumann and as excellent a constructionist at the piano equivalent to Hector Berlioz with the orchestra. Thus, when required, Ms. Grimaud places her concentration in these aspects, sometimes in lieu of her technical faculty. Nevertheless, right in the opening first motivic statement, Ms. Grimaud creates that very feeling of anticipation she once introduced earlier in the Mozart, but adds on top provoking elements of suspense, urgency and preoccupation for the listener to digest. She never really allows the listener to feel a sense of resolution [and this, in part, is thanks to Liszt], until ever so slightly she offers it when the theme reappears in the major key (in D Major). Ms. Grimaud, admittedly, has to retract her speed in certain instances, such as those double-hand/double-octave chords, but it simply reflects that even she is only genuinely human after all. In other occasions, she reminds pianists and music colleagues out in the audience that Liszt is after all a composer, who wrote music between a tug-of-war in themes based on metaphors of life and death. By drawing musical references to the earlier Sonneti del Petrarca and the later Mephisto Waltz, these instances reflect how this fine pianist is not at all an artist keen on being a showman, but an intelligent artist of reference and insight. 

     Nearly half exhausted, Ms. Grimaud completes her official program with the Six Romanian Folk Songs by Bartók. Perhaps still recovering from the aforementioned Olympian demands, she seems to be rushing through the music on two of the six pieces. Having said so, Ms. Grimuad is peculiar in articulating those folksy-elements intrinsic in Bartók’s works, and she would have raved some in the audience even more had she experimented more the rhythms and their twisted possibilities than allowing her technique to glide pass them. The most outstanding of the set is the pianist’s rendition of the Hornpipe Dance, which is one which she nearly transforms the sonority of the piano to one close enough to an actual hornpipe.
     Ms. Grimaud’s style have continued to evolve over these years, and in some aspects, she remains as fresh and faithful in style as when the author first heard her in performance ~17 or so years ago. From Bach to Arvo Pärt, she has journeyed a long way. This afternoon, Ms. Grimaud reunites old tides and makes new bonds with listeners who attended her introspective program. Perhaps as a tribute to one of the grand operatic masters of the early Classical era, she re-entered the stage with a nostalgic encore from Gluck’s Mélodie from “Orpheus and Eurydice,” transcribed by the Italian composer Giovanni Sgambati. 

     For those die-hard fans, Ms. Hélène Grimaud will next appear in New York to perform this very same recital to our American neighbours on January 31st at New York’s Le Poisson Rouge.

By: Patrick P.L. Lam

Image by Matt Henek

Homepage: Hélène Grimaud
Homepage: Deutsche Grammophon Records

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