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Chopin and Rachmaninov's Sonatas of Death

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Chopin, Sonata, op. 35; Berceuse, op. 57; Barcarolle, op. 60; and Rachmaninov, Sonata, op. 36, Hélène Grimaud, piano
I posted last month about the new CD from French pianist Hélène Grimaud, when it was reviewed in Le Monde. (At that point, M. S. Smith, blogging at CultureSpace, had already posted a review of Hélène Grimaud's concert with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and some thoughts on her new album. We await the return of that blog from its currently suspended state.)

For a performer in her 30s, Ms. Grimaud has had a fairly illustrious career, having already made recordings with Pierre Boulez, playing one of the three Bartók piano concerti, and with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Swedish Radio Symphony (Credo, featuring John Corigliano's Fantasia on an Ostinato; Beethoven's Tempest Sonata and Fantasia for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra in C minor, op. 80; and Arvo Pärt's Credo for Piano solo, Mixed Choir and Orchestra) for her first album as a Deutsche Grammophon artist. Her list of older recordings includes Ravel and Gershwin with David Zinman and the Baltimore Symphony, the Brahms first piano concerto with Staatskapelle Berlin, and the Brahms op. 116 to 119 pieces (all for Erato), the Rachmaninov second concerto with the London Philharmonia Orchestra and Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Beethoven fourth concerto with the New York Philharmonic and Kurt Masur (both for Teldec).

She has been packaged by all these companies as a beautiful woman playing the piano, since her face, often in closeup, graces all of her album covers. M. S. Smith wrote that his first impression of Grimaud was that she was "far too pretty for her profession; you'd mistake her for an actress before you took her for a classical pianist." The sex appeal of virtuoso musicians is as old as the very concept of the daring solo performer, so why shouldn't Ms. Grimaud's physical appeal be a marketing bonus? It goes without saying that you will buy Ms. Grimaud's recordings because of how she plays, but five or six publicity photos in the CD booklet cannot hurt, as far as I can tell. I might be more sympathetic to the argument that what we could really do without are Ms. Grimaud's rather indulgent liner notes. In a short essay ("Death, Where Is Thy Victory?"), she lays out her feelings about the two sonatas (both no. 2, both in B minor, by Chopin and Rachmaninov):
There is nothing more final than death; and yet, by a striking paradox, it is only death that enables the spirit to find its way back to the central point where life regains its urgency. That urgency was tested by Chopin and Rachmaninov in the extreme with their Second Sonatas, works that open out to infinity: they are masses for the dead, recited by love itself for all who love.
Ms. Grimaud's rather personal thoughts about the pieces she has recorded are followed by an interview, with Michael Church, featuring . . . more of Ms. Grimaud's rather personal thoughts about the pieces she has recorded. I have no problem with this, because performers should have a personal relationship with the music they play, but I doubt I will ever need to consult this particular booklet ever again.

Because of the third movement (Marche funèbre) I can understand associating the Chopin sonata with the theme of death (although the Funeral March was actually composed by itself in 1837, during Chopin's depression after his affair with Maria Wodzinska had ended, and only later inserted into what became the sonata, which was composed during the happy early years of his relationship with George Sand), but not the Rachmaninov. One of the most appealing qualities of instrumental music is that it can mean so many different things to different listeners: a reviewer of Freddy Kampf's performance of the Rachmaninov second sonata noted that "the Romanticism of this movement is red-blooded, with a potent, almost sexually charged dynamism." I understand even less how the theme of death could fit with the two short bon-bons appended to Grimaud's program, the Berceuse (op. 57) and the Barcarolle (op. 60), both from the mid-1840s, before Chopin and Sand really began to hate one another (and both of which, coincidentally, he played for his final concert in Paris, in 1848). Whatever. If it helps Grimaud to think about the music this way, that's great.

It strikes me, after several listenings of this album, that Ms. Grimaud plays the way she thinks about music: personally, directly, radically. There is some roughness around the edges (as opposed to the masterful polish of a Pollini), and Ms. Grimaud's tendency to sigh and even sing does come through occasionally. Her voicing of main lines is admirable, and there are moments of great tenderness contrasted with crashing, almost raucous force (this is at least partly due to the free approach to choice and flexibility of tempo). For the Chopin sonata, however, I will forever be spoiled by the live account from Maurizio Pollini last fall, where there were far more colors in the funeral march and the most daring final movement.

I have to say—and here I feel the same trepidation that Helen Radice felt before she admitted never liking Brahms—that Rachmaninov is one of those composers I could probably do without. I will listen to his music, fine, but I don't have any recordings (except a few cases where there is a piece here and there) and I just don't seek it out. He was a great pianist, and his music can be as difficult as hell, so I admire people who can play it well, but I just don't care for most of it. (This is not to say that I don't like flashy, Romantic music, since I love Liszt's hellish piano pieces.) I admit that it bothers me that one critic could describe Rachmaninov's second sonata (1913/1931) as a continuation of or coda to Chopin's (1837-40). Although I suppose that's true, there is something retrogressive about Rachmaninov that bugs me. His music is just so damned pretty. Ugh. (Give me Prokofiev anyday: his second sonata sounds like it was composed in 1912, and his seventh in the 1940s.) My dislike aside, Grimaud does a great job working her way through the treacle. Her muted, drowsy rendition of Chopin's Berceuse could rock any crabby child to sleep, and her affinity for Rachmaninov comes across well. All in all, this is good work and enjoyable listening, and it will probably not leave you as depressed as you might fear from two "sonatas of death."

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