Following my tribute to the miraculous Hélène Grimaud, it’s high time to rejoice again in her entrancing presence. She performs in London far too infrequently; a concert in June 2020 having been cancelled during Covid, the last time I heard her in person was in 2015 when she played her Water programme. So I couldn’t miss her Barbican recital last week, playing a programme of Beethoven, Brahms, and Bach-Busoni * in the midst of a tour of Germany and France.
I generally go to some lengths to avoid Beethoven, my wariness confirmed by Susan McClary. I grew up on his late string quartets, but I hardly know the piano sonatas, so Op.109 (1820) came as a revelation. While its improvisatory quality clearly suits Grimaud, to me the manic contrasts of the first two movements often sound like an ADHD diagnosis; but the final movement, with its variations on a tranquil, intense theme (Gesangvoll, mit innigster Empfindung—in the incandescent key of E major, to boot), is a real apotheosis. Here’s her 1999 recording of the movement:
She has a particular affinity with Brahms, and continued with the “private musings” of his late works from 1892–93 (for some reason I’ve always thought of Brahms as mid-century, but the symphonies are from the 1870s and 1880s, and he knew Mahler). First the Three intermezzi, “lullabies in all but name”:
And then after an interval, the Seven fantasias, a contrasting series of intermezzos and capriccios—the fifth movement particularly haunting for me:
In 1877 Brahms had adapted Bach’s monumental solo violin Chaconne (featured here) for piano (left hand—cf. Ravel!). Instead, Grimaud segued from the Seven fantasias into Busoni’s 1893 arrangement of the Chaconne, which I mentioned under Alternative Bach. Here she plays it live in 2001:
Lastly as encores for the rapturous audience she played Rachmaninoff and Silvestrov—the latter part of her latest project.
Averse as I am to the whole mystique of “Pianism”, Hélène Grimaud joins a cohort of celestial musicians of yore for whom the piano is merely a vessel; ** she vanishes deep inside the music, leading us with her. While she’s a devotee of rubato, her playing is unadorned and serious, eschewing mere virtuosity, never glamorising the music. The mood set by her languid stroll on and off stage (gliding, dreamy but not casual—roaming the clouds), once seated at the piano she plays for herself, as if we are but eavesdroppers. To hear her is one of life’s great blessings.
* * *
Irreverent musings on Beethoven are linked in my post on the 7th symphony. For more Brahms: Kleiber’s astounding performance of the 2nd symphony, Celibidache with the St Anthony variations, and reflections on HIP interpretations. My many posts on Bach are rounded up here.
* FWIW, soon after reflecting on the BM “China’s hidden century” exhibition, I note the programme spans the Jiaqing to Guangxu reigns—But That’s Not Important Right Now…
** Returning to the Beethoven sonata, I was keen to hear the interpretations of two of Grimaud’s own idols, Glenn Gould (Vienna, 1957) and Sviatoslav Richter (Leipzig, 1963). Now I’m also in awe of the 1950 recording by Wilhelm Backhaus; and the same year in Moscow, the recording of Richter’s teacher Heinrich Neuhaus (one of few who observes the Andante marking of the finale’s theme) has an authentic feel. Going back to 1927 is a piano roll of Alfred Cortot. Without getting too nerdy about HIP, one can’t help wondering about the changing sound of the piano itself—here’s Ronald Brautigam on fortepiano. Oh all right then, let’s admire Alfred Brendel live in 1995.
Posted in Kuzguncuk,
where Beethoven resounded at the kösk of Abdülmecid in 1915.