IN: Reviews

Cool Sparkles on a Frigid Night

by

Helene Grimaud at Jordan Hall (Robert Torres photo)

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.

Victor Khatutsky has written for the Intelligencer since 2014. He also interests himself in genomics and the poetry of Boris Pasternak.

9 Comments »

9 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. I totally agree with you on the Grimaud review. I thought the Beethoven was on steroids, the Brhams soulless, and why on earth did she have to move into the Busoni without a break? Not one of my favorite piano recitals. And why was the audience so enthusiastic? Because she has a great reputation, and who are they to disagree?

    Comment by Katalin Mitchell — January 22, 2024 at 9:00 am

  2. I also found the concert much to my displeasure. Within six measures of the Beethoven, I knew that I was in for a dreadful experience. Much piano banging, bad pedaling, misjudging dynamic markings, extreme tempos, and so on caused me to cringe. I have no idea where the packed audience came from, but it left me feeling totally out-of-place that evening.

    Comment by Ann Besser Scott — January 22, 2024 at 3:02 pm

  3. It’s always a treat to read Mr.Khatutsky’s brilliantly lucid, thought-provoking reviews.

    Comment by Ashley — January 23, 2024 at 7:31 am

  4. Thank you for your effective and spot on review. Like you, I was also disappointed by the performance. Grimaud’s textures throughout were so thick that I grew tired of her sound by the end of the recital. There was so much more to emotionally mine that she did not seem to even try to pursue. Like you and the other commenters, I’m surprised by the level of support she received from the audience, but maybe too many of us had weathered such a cold night that we had to convince ourselves it was worth all the trouble, and many of us are so grateful to be back as a live audience with memories of the pandemic not distant enough.

    Comment by Robert Berkowitz — January 23, 2024 at 9:29 pm

  5. I do not even remember any other such disrespecting and emotionally dry performances in Boston. “Fast and loud”. I was much frustrated.

    Comment by Leo — January 25, 2024 at 2:55 am

  6. I can’t disagree much with the impressions here from Hélène Grimaud’s Jordan Hall recital, which I found disappointing in several respects. The enthusiastic audience response was hardly a surprise, though: one had just seen a dazzling performer offer sincere, energetic renditions of some of the most stirring music ever composed for the piano (pace Bach).

    I understand from insiders that there was a sad but not widely shared context to Grimaud’s performance Saturday: she was apparently suffering a migraine, her affliction hardly evident as she gamely took the stage to tackle a technically daunting program. Furthermore, someone in Sunday afternoon’s audience at the Groton Hill Music Center told me she was unable to make it through the Chaconne, and required medical attention. Happily, as far as I can tell, the artist had recovered enough by last night to perform at Princeton University. Well wishes to her, going forward!

    Comment by nimitta — January 25, 2024 at 1:26 pm

  7. Thanks to nimitta for mentioning the circumstances under which Ms. Grimaud was performing. I also heard a report of this.

    I was among those who applauded fairly vigorously (though I didn’t stand up, which I prefer to reserve for particularly memorable performances). I did so partly out of courtesy, but also out of gratitude for her many wonderful recordings, which have given me great pleasure over the years.

    I did do her a certain injustice, when I found myself thinking during the opening piece that perhaps she was not really sympathetic to Beethoven, a prejudice I think I brought with me to the concert. I don’t know why, because the next day, looking over the recordings I have by her, I found a number of performances of Beethoven works, including one of Op. 109. I listened to it again, and it was quite beautiful.

    I do find fault with one choice of hers, regarding programming, not performance. I think the Busoni transcription of the Bach Ciaccona is a travesty that defaces a great masterpiece. It is the product of the kind of sensibility that thinks drama is heightened by adding more notes to all the chords, by always giving the fingers more things to do whether or not those things add or subtract. It was also a lost opportunity by Grimaud, who has a great affinity for Brahms, because there is another transcription of the Ciaccona, by Brahms, for piano left hand, that is both effective as a piano piece, and faithful to the character of the original work. I would love to hear her play it, and leave the Busoni mess behind.

    Comment by SamW — January 26, 2024 at 12:36 pm

  8. I realize this is a bit overdue, but I am chiming in with a dissent from the above impressions.

    My wife and I attended this concert, and joined in the enthusiastic applause for her performance. We thought the performance was dazzling.

    In the opening movement of Beethoven’s Op. 109, the composer fragments the tune into a series of note pairs that keep bouncing up and down between left and right hands, and different voices within the music that the left and right hands are playing. I heard Igor Levit also when he played all of the last three sonatas at Jordan. Much of the playing was divine, but the opening movement didn’t work for me; he attacked the notes so fast that the note couplets blurred and the tune was lost. Grimaud was spot on, maintaining beautiful clarity of touch and keeping a singing line going throughout. She had breathtaking control of piano tone, using a variety of shadings, colors, and attacks to inflect the lines, making in particular for a magical haze in the coda, where an arpeggiated figure goes from the bottom of Beethoven’s keyboard of the time all the way up to the top, overtones ringing as the notes moved up.

    As a singer, I have recently been working on figuring out what to do when a bit of music repeats. In, say, a Handel da capo aria, the da capo repeat is a chance for the singer to ornament the line, show off their vocal technique, and embroider the basic structure that Handel set in place. With a composer like Bach or Beethoven, it’s trickier to embellish. Beethoven in particular tended to write out everything he wanted as he grew more and more deaf, leaving little to the performer, and in any event, it’s challenging to see how you can improve on Beethoven (or, sometimes in my case, a repeated Bach vocal line).

    I enjoyed Grimaud’s approach to the repeats in the theme-and-variations third movement of Op. 109. Each of the repeats of each variation was shaped a little differently. Tempos were mostly a shade slower, and sometimes there was more drawing out of phrases, the better to emphasize different notes in a chord and re-voice the harmony, or pull out an inner voice and bring it to the fore. The joins between sections remained seamless, and this made for an intriguing solution, adding new and different takes on each variation without showy, distracting additions.

    Grimaud has technique to burn to negotiate all of the technical challenges of the Brahms Intermezzi Op. 117 and Fantasies Op. 116. I would concede there might be more poetry in this music than she found, especially in Op. 117, No. 1, Brahms’s “cradle song for my sorrows.” Recordings by Julius Katchen and Radu Lupu transport you to an otherworldly realm beyond in this intermezzo; this performance remained distinctly earthbound.

    The headlong transition with barely a pause from the Capriccio Op. 117 No. 7 to Ferruccio Busoni’s arrangement of J.S. Bach’s Chaconne was an interesting choice. I suppose the point is to play up the common ground between Brahms and Busoni, even if the conventional wisdom is to put them at opposites in their time. We weren’t left cold by Grimaud’s technical wizardry in a supremely pianistic adaptation of a solo violin classic, but found the mercurial shifts of mood, dynamic, and tempo to make for an exhilarating finish.

    I have been lucky enough to hear a plethora of memorable solo piano recitals in the past two years, between Igor Levit, Beatrice Rana, Jeremy Denk, and Víkingur Ólafsson. I, at least, would not hesitate to include Hélène Grimaud’s Beethoven Op. 109 in that distinguished company.

    Comment by James C.S. Liu — February 11, 2024 at 2:19 pm

  9. One erratum – the penultimate piece was Brahms’s Op. 116, No. 7. That’ll show me to type with a hand shifted one key to the right.

    Comment by James C.S. Liu — February 14, 2024 at 9:04 am

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