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DVD Feature/ Helene Grimaud: "Living with Wolves"

img  Tobias

In several respects, Helene Grimaud has managed to achieve the inconceivable. She has remained „typically French“ despite moving to the USA. She has kept the inquisitive and naive spirit of a seven-year old and infused it with a deep psychological insight. Despite all external doubts about a musician trying to be a writer, she has published a biography („Variations Sauvage“) which is generally regarded as a powerful work of prose. Her public image is sensual and fragile as well as strong and intellectual and it is completely contemporary even though her discography reveals desperately little of an interpretational interest in 21st century repertoire. No wonder, then, that people can't get enough of reading and finding out about her. And it goes without saying that a personality so replete with seeming contradictions should be every director's dream.

Indeed, Reiner E. Moritz gladly seized the chance to get to know Grimaud through the lens of his camera. His movie follows her from her well-hidden home somewhere in the remote parts of New York State's countryside to fruitful rehearsals with the Oslo Philharmonics under the auspices of Thomas Dausgaard and the actual concert performance, a rendition of Rachmaninoff's second Piano Concerto. In between, short flashbacks to earlier years as well as stage impressions enrich the contemporary focus with practical examples of her unapologetically intense playing as well as with thoughts on topics such as travelling, recording and a slew of other minor and major details. With few exceptions, such as when photographer J Henry Fair gets to express why he believes she is such an overwhelming live presence („Helene will perform the same piece on three different nights and you will have three entirely different experiences“), or Dausberg declares his love for her ever-curious nature, it is a portrait told by the artist herself and based upon a few long interviews, which were later cut to match the rhythm of the narrative.

Contrary to what the title and the cover image might suggest, „Living with Wolves“ is neither an adaptation, rehash nor extension of „Variations Sauvages“. Notably, most of the anecdotes, legends and historical background stories about the wolf have been edited down to a short visit at Grimaud's enclosure and a brief episode where she explains the importance of the species as the main predator in terms of enriching the natural diversity of a particular habitat. Not much, on the other hand, is revealed about how the project started, what really motivates her to continue with it and what she believes to be its wider implications. The general danger of film-portraits – of letting the camera do all the talking - is immanent here, as the documentary seems under the impression that a couple of beautiful close-ups and wide-angle shots of wild animals will reveal enough to answer all questions on an intuitive level.

On the other hand, and this becomes apparent after watching the movie for a second or third time, Moritz has based his concept on the impression that despite her lucid analytical mind and her hunger for knowledge and understanding, Grimaud is fundamentally a deeply impulsive person whose decisions are quite often spontaneous and inexplicable. It is revealing that she discovered music only after having tried out various sports and a plethora of typical hobbies as a little girl – and that her first contact with sound was immediate and overwhelming. Her performance, as she explains in a particularly interesting interview on American radio, doesn't need a lot of physical repetition and reinforcement but bases on the constant, playful re-evaluation of concepts in her mind. And her interpretations, just as revered for their vivid creativity by fans as derided for their supposed over-emphasis on artistic freedom by her critics, are born in the moment from a solid foundation of preparation, emotional prowess and risk.

Do you get know intimate details you may not have known before? Only if you're a complete newbie to the world of Helene Grimaud. Are there, on the other hand, some interesting facts to discover here which go against the grain of what one might have expected prior to watching the movie? Absolutely. Grimaud's insistence that she loves the studio situation and always misses it for days after a CD project has been concluded, for example, certainly comes as a surprise after hearing about her passion for the concert situation. Her open displays of love for Beethoven's fourth Piano Concerto (accompanied by footage of her and Christoph Eschenbach) and especially Chopin's Piano Concerto No.2, a piece often considered a side-note in musical history, are also certainly more than worthwhile. All in all, „Living with Wolves“ offers a menu which is as brief as it is entertaining and at least in one instance manages to achieve the inconceivable: At the end, Helene Grimaud doesn't seem all that contradictory any more.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Helene Grimaud
Homepage: EMI Classics

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