Helene Grimaud brought a lot of glitter to the stage of well-packed Jordan Hall on Saturday, the coldest night of the season so far. The pianist chose an outfit of black sparkle on top of silver sparkle in her first Boston recital; the spotlights obliged, delivering an uninterrupted flow of shimmering reflections.
Beethoven’s opus 109 served as an uncommon icebreaker for a program that did not include the master’s subsequent two. Vivace and Prestissimo came crisp, robust, and generally satisfying. By the slow movement though, the dryness of Grimaud’s approach became official. Beethoven had asked the performer to sing these tunes ― not once, but twice, writing Gesangvoll and Cantabile, in case a translation had been necessary. Listening to the theme and the first variation, one could conclude that the composer had been in one of his cranky moods and marked the movement as Bello ma senza sentimento. Repeating the theme much slower sounded ok albeit without adding much sangvollness. Throughout the movement, contrasting tempi constituted the main vehicle of expression, while colors went AWOL.
Primed by bone-dry Beethoven, I did not find Grimaud’s zen in Brahms Three Intermezzos Op. 117 surprising. It would be unfair to say that she played the notes: she also played the markings. But where was the emotional engagement? Something’s wrong when an artist does not indulge herself a bit when playing this late Brahms which the composer described as a “cradle songs for my sorrows.” And then of course, one remembers the much-quoted letter to Clara regarding how, “…every measure and every note must sound like a ritardando, as if one wanted to suck the melancholy out of each single one, with lust and pleasure out of the aforementioned dissonances.”
A similar fate befell us for the opus 116 Fantasies, arriving after the intermission. To be fair, there is a lot of architectural beauty in Brahms, and Grimaud illustrated that perfectly. Many aficionados could probably get a similar joy from just rifling through the printed score, and for those who need an interpreter, Grimaud’s robust and transparent delivery, with every harmony perfectly articulated, served as an impeccable embodiment. A resurrection of complex feelings of the great composer it wasn’t.
As if to make a point of this attitude, the pianist rushed through the last Capriccio, a gut-wrenching piece for those who err on the side of taking Brahms’s words and emotions seriously. All notes dutifully hit, and the mood ignored, she launched attacca into the piece de resistance of the program, the Bach-Busoni Chaconne, as if tossing the teary-eyed patriarch from Karlsgasse aside.
In what felt like a logical closer, Busoni’s ample fireworks on the piano completely shifted the mood away from a powerful vox humana of the violin original. We heard Grimaud, famous for her wildlife conservation work, preaching a cold pantheistic vision, liberated from all individual concerns. People endowed with synesthesia would have been truly overwhelmed, as the shimmering outfit resonated with the rippling brilliance of the pianist’s fingerwork. That cold universe shone with architectural beauty and pianistic glories, crisp and powerful throughout. But I was rifling through my memory trying to recall another occasion when a gifted pianist of this caliber had left me so cold. It was as if I was fussing with a dial on my FM tuner while she was broadcasting on AM waves.
The audience, apparently better attuned than I, achieved clarity of reception with extreme enthusiasm. Grimaud rewarded the hall with another item of brilliant pianism, again somewhat liberated from composer’s moodiness, Rachmaninoff’s Etude-Tableau In C Major Op. 33 No. 2.
The second encore, Valentin Silvestrov’s Bagatelle, sounded a bit more personal and heart-felt. Unfortunately, an ominous cellphone greeting from Steve Jobs once again bore witness to how a fellow listener can combine an obnoxious attitude of not turning off the phone with awkward inability to mute the bloody device when it blares out.