IN: Reviews

Grimaud and the Three Bs


Hélène Grimaud (Mat Hennek photo)

Hélène Grimaud enchanted a packed Breakers Mansion in Newport Thursday evening her take on the three Bs, beginning with Beethoven’s Op. 109, a late sonata, followed by Brahms’s Three Intermezzi Op. 117 and 7 Phantasien Op. 116, concluding with Bach’s D Minor Chaconne in the famous transcription by Ferruccio Busoni, who completes the connection back to Brahms.*

Grimaud’s Beethoven opened in a wash of pedal, securing for her a primacy of sound and affect over clarity and texture. To be clear, she could and did play some of the most difficult passages completely dry when it so suited her, and she would often clear the pedal completely to let a single sonority sound alone, again for affect. Perhaps Beethoven himself heard this way, as many passages in his late piano works suggest, including this sonata. Grimaud often played to the extremes of dynamics and tempi, coaxing some of the most powerful sound out of the piano as could be had from a single instrument, with a flawless and impressively strong virtuosic technique, powerful octaves and chords, and blistering speeds that created a drama and intensity that animated, excited, and thrilled patrons. At the other end of the sound spectrum, were those themes that were so introspective, meditative, and calming, such as the singing theme “with inner depth” that opens Beethoven’s final movement of variations that seem to foreshadow the great Adagio of the Ninth Symphony which came just two years after the 1820 sonata.    

The two Brahms sets contrasted the sad and lonely Op. 117 with its opening lovely Scottish Lullaby in E-flat Major, mysteriously dark interior, a literary reference, and a note from the composer that it expressed “the lullaby of his sorrows.” The two Intermezzi that follow are equally dark and restive. By contrast, and after an intermission, the set of seven Intermezzi-fantasies that opened the second half are generally more outgoing, framed by two energetic Capriccios, the interior pieces by turn more reflective, or restless, or amiable, seemingly in alternation. Grimaud’s interpretation built and intensified until the entire set segued without pause into Busoni’s mammoth transcription of Bach’s violin masterwork. Capturing the flair and energy of Bach’s original, Busoni’s transcription is thick and heavy-laden with tremendous and sometimes overwhelming chords and Faustian drama, which Grimaud delivered with fierce energy and assuredness. A work from the great age of piano virtuosity, Grimaud’s epic and masterful performance establishes beyond question her continuation of that great lineage of legendary pianists for audiences still to be thrilled by. Unable to escape the enthusiasm of the standing and cheering crowd, Grimaud treated us to a tender and reflective encore, the second Bagatelle of Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov.

Stephen Martorella is Minister of Music at The First Baptist Church in America, Providence, Rhode Island, and teaches at Rhode Island College.

* Leslie Barcza compared Brahms’s 1877 left-hand transcription with Busoni’s 1893 “Stokowski” version; the latter invites a massive piano sound even when you play softly –as you often do in this big and powerful re-invention of Bach.

Busoni could respect Brahms’s take, but he’d never write with such economy or self-effacement.  For the longest time, I never gave the Brahms a second thought, only noticing it as a kind of witty tour de force, both for the tightness of Brahms’s paraphrase of the Bach piece, but one also requiring brilliant technique in the execution.

In time I found that I started to play the two in succession, impressed in spite of myself with Brahms’s refusal to be a show-off.

Reading Fleisher, however, has given me an entirely different perspective.

‘Probably the single greatest work for solo left hand is by Brahms, who was looking for a way to capture the sparseness, in a piano transcription, of the unaccompanied violin line of Bach’s wondrous D minor Chaconne. Writing for only one hand allowed Brahms to echo the limitations of the solo instrument and the ways that Bach miraculously transcends them. Brahms wrote the piece for Clara Schumann, who particularly adored the Bach Chaconne, and who happened to be sidelined, at the time, with right-handed tendinitis. (Fleisher 247)’

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  1. Thanks for such a vivid account of this recital, Stephen! By the way, readers of the *footnote comparing transcriptions of the D minor Chaconne may not realize that Leslie Barcza was referring to Leon Fleisher’s terrific memoir, My Nine Lives.

    As Fleisher points out, Brahms wrote his left hand transcription in 1877 for Clara Schumann, who was suffering at the time from tendinitis in her right hand. Brahms knew she cherished Bach’s version for solo violin, true, but I’ve always wondered about another possible motive: whether he felt in any way responsible for her condition. After all, it began in 1874, right around the time she’d been practicing hard in preparation for a performance of his monumental D minor piano concerto in Leipzig, where it had been hissed some 15 years earlier.

    Comment by nimitta — July 16, 2023 at 9:04 pm

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