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Hélène Grimaud and the Schumanns

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Hélène Grimaud, Reflection, Truls Mørk, Anne Sofie von Otter (released on September 12, 2006)
French pianist Hélène Grimaud thinks big, in her personal life by using her celebrity to embrace various causes and in her music, which she selects and plays in terms of weighty and often philosophical ideas. Her 2005 CD, which I reviewed last year, was centered around the theme of death, somewhat inexplicably as I saw it. Now Grimaud has taken love as her subject (what else could measure up to death?), but fortunately she limits herself to a one-page Preface in the liner notes, about this emotion that united Robert and Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms, the three composers featured on this new recording. (The European version of this release had three letters from the composers to one another, gathered by Grimaud in her extensive research of the program. They are not included in the U.S. release.) Happily, Grimaud turns over the rest of the notes to Nancy B. Reich, although there is plenty of room for gorgeous photographs of Grimaud, who has become a brunette.

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Hélène Grimaud Box Set
Grimaud has apparently recorded the Robert Schumann concerto (A minor, op. 54) in the 1990s, before she signed with Deutsche Grammophon. (I have not heard that performance, although you can buy it again as part of the Grimaud box set released this month by Warner Classics.) Here she plays with the Staatskapelle Dresden, the modern orchestra descended from the group that premiered Schumann's concerto, the Dresden Hofkapelle, with Clara Schumann playing the solo, in 1845. Esa-Pekka Salonen leads a fine performance from the orchestra, although at a few climactic moments in the first movement, Grimaud and the orchestra are not in agreement. In general, it is not a particularly impressive or memorable reading of this concerto, certainly not enough to warrant buying yet another recording of it.

Technically, Grimaud is a gifted player certainly, although not to mind-blowing proportions. What seems to please many listeners, myself included, is the individuality of her interpretation. All those strong ideas, which also come out in her politics and writing, lead her toward a sometimes unpredictable way of playing. That can be an exciting thing to hear from a purely solo player, but this CD is an anthology dominated by collaborative performances. In a sense when Grimaud is the soloist in a concerto, it is up to the orchestra to stay with her, but the role is reversed in the next two selections.

Hélène Grimaud, photo courtesy of Kasskara/Deutsche GrammophonAccompanying is not a skill that comes naturally to all pianists, and the three brief tracks here, songs by Clara Schumann with mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, do not reveal Grimaud as a natural accompanist. She has a passionate sense of rubato, which leads her to make the introduction and brief interludes of Er ist gekommen (op. 12, no. 2) very turbulent. It's appropriately Romantic (Friedrich Rückert's poem is about a man who arrives "in storm and rain" to take the narrator's heart), but I cannot help but think that a singer would get kind of nervous listening to that sound while negotiating an entrance. Indeed, von Otter's voice has a jittery edge to it in this song. The third song, Am Strande (Wilhelm Gerhard's adaptation of a Robert Burns poem), is much the same. Happily, Grimaud's other strength, direct simplicity, is just what is needed for the second Rückert song, Warum willst du and're fragen, in which we seem to hear the calm, steadying voice of Clara Schumann in her husband's ears ("Do not believe strangers, / do not believe your own delusions; / nor should you interpret my actions, / but rather look at my eyes").

The best collaborative performance on this CD is with Truls Mørk, on the first Brahms cello concerto sonata (E minor, op. 38). At times, it sounds like Grimaud pushes Mørk with her driving sense of line, but the piece is written with the cello part in control enough that the partnership seems on more even footing. The only drawback is that Grimaud's tendency toward loud and full sound occasionally overwhelms the cello or obliges Mørk to play with a shrill or forced tone. It's a substantial piece formally, only six minutes shorter than the Schumann concerto, and their rendition is what best recommends this recording, along with the only two solo piano pieces, the Brahms op. 79 rhapsodies.

Grimaud can and does cut loose in these pieces, giving collar-poppingly uninhibited performances that one might not associate with Brahms but which are likely to quicken your pulse. (These pieces are marked "Agitato" and "Molto passionato," after all.) The second op. 79 rhapsody (G minor) is one of the most entertaining Brahms pieces to play at the piano, with its sweeping melodies and booming bass octaves. Grimaud stretches the tempo until it nearly breaks, both fast and slow, the former perhaps a tad in violation of Brahms's tempo modification ("ma non troppo allegro"). She does so not without a few smudged notes due to the precipitous pacing. Still, minor quibbles aside, this is satisfying playing.

Deutsche Grammophon 477 5719

For those in the area, Hélène Grimaud will play a recital this Sunday (November 5, 5:30 pm) at Shriver Hall in Baltimore. Her program will include the two Brahms rhapsodies recorded on this disc, as well as selections from her 2005 disc, the Chopin berceuse and barcarolle and Rachmaninov's second sonata. Her program opens with Busoni's arrangement of the Bach D minor chaconne.


jfl said...

Here she plays with the Staatskapelle Dresden, the modern orchestra descended from the group that premiered Schumann's concerto, the Dresden Hofkapelle

450 uninterrupted years of existence as an orchestra makes the Staatskapelle one of the oldest orchestras in the world; even the title "Staatskapelle", as opposed to "Hofkapelle", dates back to the late 1850s.

Apart from the fact that the players are not 450 years old, what makes the Staatskapelle a 'modern orchestra'?

Charles T. Downey said...

Jens, I did not mean to disparage what is, I certainly agree, one of the most venerable musical institutions in the world. I only meant to specify that the duties and function of that orchestra are different from what they were in 1548 and even in 1845. That's all. Surely, the range of personnel now on their payroll and the sort of career they lead must be different these days? (My understanding was that the name Staatskapelle was a change made after World War I.) They do not wear livery anymore, and they play principally for a ticket-buying public. Their union is probably also somewhat stronger.

jfl said...

well... by that standard, every orchestra is a modern descendent of its past self. and apart from the name-adjustment, i was wondering what made the DS different that it needed specifying that its 'not the same orchestra' -- when for all practical purposes, it *has* been the same orchestra. i just thought it leans toward suggesting a lack of continuity, which isn't the case. (No disassembly during or after the wars etc.)


Charles T. Downey said...

Jens, you are right about the impressive continuity of that institution. I should not have implied any discontinuity there. Apologies!

jfl said...

just nitpicking :)

Charles T. Downey said...

Terry, yes, typo. Thanks!