CD Review: Hélène Grimaud Resonances

ResonancesHélène Grimaud’s new CD, Resonances: bold, full-toned, affirmative –– and unabashedly Romantic

The French pianist brushes historical accuracy aside and aims straight for the heart in her latest recording of sonatas by Mozart, Liszt and Berg, along with Bartók’s “Romanian Dances”

By Kevin Moore

The first time I saw the name Hélène Grimaud was beside a picture of a delicate young girl on the cover of a Denon CD. At the time of the recording, the 15-year old student had just graduated from the Paris Conservatoire with a first prize in piano. That recording of the revised version of the Rachmaninoff Piano Sonata no.2 in Bb minor was one of the most passionate, colorful and engaging I had ever heard. The all-Rachmaninoff CD also included the complete Etudes-Tableaux, Op.33. Astonishing was the word.

Since the time of that first CD Grimaud has established herself as one of the most intriguing and thoughtful musical artists around. Every recording seems to have been put together with great care and deep thought. Her second recording of that same Rachmaninoff Sonata, this time in a combined original/revised version similar to that of Horowitz, was paired wonderfully with the Chopin Piano Sonata no.2 in Bb minor, Op.35 (the famous “Funeral March” Sonata) and several other Chopin works. That was Grimaud, again, at her very best –– this time on Deutsche Grammophon.

Grimaud’s most recent CD, released at the end of 2010, is appropriately titled Resonances. It comprises Mozart’s most dramatic piano work, the Piano Sonata in A minor, K.310, the Piano Sonata, Op.1 by Alban Berg, the Piano Sonata in B minor of Franz Liszt and the Romanian Folk Dances of Béla Bartók. Placing two ultra-romantic, one-movement sonatas in the middle of the recording, preceded by the Mozart Sonata and followed by the short, encore-like dances, makes quite an effective program.

The very first note of the Mozart Sonata that begins the program, an appoggiatura that she plays distinctly ahead of the beat, seems to signal the kind of performance it will be: bold, full-toned, unabashedly affirmative and Romantic in style. And that has its virtues in this most Beethoven-ish of Mozart’s works. In the very interesting interview with Grimaud in the liner notes she claims that Mozart is “an extremist in matters of expression, a point that made him so interesting to Beethoven…” She clearly takes this piece seriously, including observing both repeats in the first movement.

There is no concession at all here to current fashions of “historicity” in the performance of late 18th century music: This is straight from the heart, sincere and makes its case well. Personally, I prefer a more restrained approach but I admire the sheer musicianship and beauty of what Grimaud brings to this piece. The slow movement (also with the repeat taken) brings a lovely expressivity and a sense of melodic flow and direction. The short concluding Presto is quite impetuous and catches perfectly the underlying mood of sad agitation.

The Berg Piano Sonata was once called “the greatest opus 1 in the history of music,” and in the interview with Grimaud included in the liner notes she says “… [it was] the starting point for a program that seems to trace an arbitrary line through the history of music….” Grimaud goes on to add, “One assumes that a piece with the opus number one must be an early work, but the truth is that Berg’s Sonata is the perfect incarnation of what he could bring to the world. It’s an extreme expression of something that seems to come from the soul, involving no calculation and yet resulting in a piece of an unfathomably lucid structure.”

Quite right. Her performance is perhaps too bright, clear and bold to fully encompass this intensely emotional yet harmonically, tonally and texturally murky piece, yet she makes it effective in her own way –– as she seems to do with everything she plays. I enjoyed it, and think it makes a wonderful pairing (and preparation) for that great one-movement Sonata by Liszt that follows.

Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B minor is clearly the high point of this recording. Grimaud approaches the colossal tone poem with an appropriately rhetorical style –– one that strongly conveys a sense of structure. Unlike too many pianists for whom this piece becomes a headlong exercise in piano pounding, Grimaud savors every delicious detail of Liszt’s magnificent piano textures. She knows exactly when to keep things moving, and she brings an impressive clarity of texture (a virtue noted in Liszt’s own playing in a famous description by Sir Charles Halle), especially during passages often rendered muddy and blurry by others. As freely and expressively as she plays, it never once sounds willful or self-indulgent.

I will confess that for several years I declared a personal moratorium on buying recordings of the Liszt B minor Sonata. I simply got tired of hearing the same trite mannerisms and performances that seemed headlong, self-indulgent and simply bad –– even from some rather famous names. And with recordings in my collection by Gilels, Arrau, Brendel, Freire, Argerich, Zimerman, Pollini, Kuerti and several other great pianists, it seemed pointless to hear more. Recently, however, I ended my moratorium with an impressive recording by Kirill Gerstein (see my earlier review at Grimaud’s recording impressed me even more, although in a different way: It’s freer, more romantic in sensibility and ultimately more characteristically Liszt-ian.

The Romanian Folk Dances by Béla Bartók are a delightful collection of six very short dances alternating sad and joyous moods. They end this recording in delightful style, again played quite boldly and expressively by Grimaud.

Although I’ve been less-than-impressed with some of what I’ve heard from Grimaud in the past (particularly her two Beethoven recordings), this new CD is a wonderful, recital-like combination of pieces that I found to be delightful. For listeners who enjoys honest, first-class music making, this CD will not likely disappoint them.

Details Box:
What: CD review, Hélène Grimaud: Resonances, piano works by Mozart, Berg, Liszt and Bartók
LabelDeutsche Grammophon, DGG B001515402
International release date: October 18, 2010
Running time: 1 hour, 9-minutes