Chopin
Barcarolle, Op.60
Berceuse, Op.57
Sonata No.2 in B flat minor, Op.35
Rachmaninov
Sonata No.2 in B flat minor, Op.35 (edited Grimaud)
Hélène Grimaud (piano)

Recorded in December 2004 in Siemens-Villa, Berlin
CD No: DG 477 5325
Duration: 62 minutes
Reviewed: February 2005
This disc comes with a front cover that features Hélène Grimaud's face in close up, replete with sultry looks and alluring eyes. When you remove the CD you can see another picture of her looking coyly suggestive and the booklet contains a further eight pictures of her. Sex and sensuality have always been good marketing tools, but I do think DG might be going OTT here.
For the Rachmaninov Second Sonata Grimaud uses the composer’s 1931 revision “with borrowings from the 1913 version”. I thought it would be interesting, prior to hearing the recording, to find out whether she was uses Horowitz’s edition or has made a new one. On opening the booklet I was confronted with a short essay by Grimaud entitled “Death, Where is Thy Victory?”. This is full of purple prose about death, love, tragedy, and time and space. She concludes: “Finally, it seems that the music of Chopin and Rachmaninov is filled with new things: It knows where the dead hide, it comes on their behalf and before long we shall all be together in a meadow filled with flowers, with fruit and with music”. There’s also an interview with Grimaud in which she likens pianists to Victorian explorers in Africa exploring “fabled lands”.
Regarding the Rachmaninov she opines that the original version “is for me about what I call psychological marasmus: being mired in darkness.” There’s more in a similar vein (incidentally for those of you wondering, ‘marasmus’ means a wasting away of the body). But other than these somewhat debatable and grandiloquently over-romanticised views there are no specific notes on the music, which isn’t acceptable. Using artists to write programme notes is fine – Brendel contributed some brilliant ones for his Philips Liszt recordings – but here DG gives the impression that the only thing that matters is the looks and personality of the performer – which amounts to little more than ‘dumbing down’.
Nevertheless, what of the performances? For comparisons I have chosen Pletnev (Virgin) in the Chopin Sonata and Barcarolle, Solomon in the Berceuse (Testament) and Horowitz (BMG 1968) in the Rachmaninov. The Chopin Sonata opens imposingly and the first subject surges forward. The second subject is slower – the score merely says ‘sostenuto’ over the introductory whole and half notes – and Grimaud’s held notes are pretty much as marked, but she also gives the music a gently rocking quality which on second hearing sounded self-conscious. Ironically Pletnev takes more liberties but actually sounds more natural. Grimaud observes the repeat and uses it to present both themes with small differences of emphasis and phrasing. At the climax of the development and in the recapitulation the use of pedal and her rhythmic control are not quite exact enough and the performance becomes unfocused; Pletnev is altogether more volatile and improvisatory and seems to reinvent the music, but retains absolute control.
Grimaud’s Scherzo is fast and powerful, but here the effect is unrelenting, she misses the dynamic variation of Pletnev and in the ‘più lento’ trio the swaying motion of the first movement’s second subject returns and here it sounds rather mannered. In the great hymn-like funeral march, Grimaud’s lack of variation in terms of colouring, dynamics and phrasing robs the music of its tragic tread. In the elegiac trio Grimaud is too loud and literal to capture its quiet melancholy and the march’s return is again too literal. Pletnev conveys universal tragedy, and in the trio his micro dynamics, touch and rubato are exceptional. The Presto finale is quite extraordinary as a creation; it is marked ‘sotto voce e legato’ and only on the last bar’s quarter-note before the final chord is there a dynamic marking, ff. Here Grimaud doesn’t obey the legato marking and sounds choppy; Pletnev makes these three pages of quarter notes sound Impressionistic and very unsettling.
The Barcarolle is a very sophisticated piece of late Chopin, the opening theme is sufficiently complex harmonically and rhythmically to allow Chopin to build a complete development section out of it. Unfortunately this undulating gondolier’s song is too loud in Grimaud’s hands and lacks a true legato. In the development Grimaud’s tone is strident, the music doesn’t gradually evolve, and in the recapitulation the right hand arabesques are too heavy. Pletnev is once again more interventionist but his entire expressive range is larger and more sophisticated.
Piano miniatures don’t come any better than the Berceuse. It is actually a set of brief variations on the opening four-bar theme and requires absolute security and subtlety of touch and control of the sustaining pedal. Grimaud starts very well but at the first trill the sound becomes metallic and the fingering is less than exact. Nonetheless, the effortless progression to the final pp chords is beautifully captured by her refusal to change tempo or use excessive rubato. Grimaud cannot equal Solomon in 1942, but then no-one ever has, his transcendental technique and golden tone allow him to perfectly place and weight every note and phrase and produce something that is as near to perfection as one can ever hope to hear.
When we come to the Rachmaninov we enter into a maze of editions. Rachmaninov published the score in 1913 but then in 1931 revised it by making small cuts and clarifying the textures. In 1940 Horowitz decided that the revised score was too short, and while he re-introduced many elements of the 1913 version, he also deleted some of the less-inspired melodic repeats and decorations of the later version. Rachmaninov did approve of these changes, but most performers and listeners prefer authenticity and the composer’s version is now generally preferred to Horowitz’s. Grimaud uses her own edition, which is thicker in texture via doublings and extra chord parts and re-introduces some of the right-hand decorative elements and repetitions. I can’t say that the differences are glaring; you can enjoy the performance on its own terms.
What is glaring is the difference in the performing styles. The Horowitz recording was made at two concerts in Carnegie Hall in 1968 and has rightly become a classic. Grimaud is consistently slower and doesn’t have Horowitz’s power and command. By normal standards her fingerwork and rhythmic attack are pretty good, but by comparison with Horowitz they sound no more then approximate; nor is her phrasing as flowing, largely because she doesn’t have Horowitz's instinctive sense of line and rubato. In the Lento Grimaud varies her dynamic range and makes small tempo adjustments but, as in the Chopin, it sounds mannered. Grimaud’s tempo in the barnstorming last movement is suitably propulsive – until you listen to Horowitz who explodes into the opening scherzo-like theme and doesn’t allows the tension to slip in the rather weak second subject. The coda has a sense of massive grandeur in Grimaud’s hands, but from Horowitz it is a torrent of perfectly defined notes and rhythm.
On several occasions I have mentioned the strident quality of some of Grimaud’s playing and her lack of touch and tonal shading. In fairness much of this may be down to the piano and the recording. A pianist can have superb touch and a very wide tonal palette but on some pianos this will be less evident; the piano on this disc sounds heavy and unresponsive. The recording is also too forwardly balanced and lacks true resonance and there is no sense of acoustic space around the instrument; a better prepared piano and recording might have significantly improved my impressions of this CD.
In conclusion, I may have been a little unfair in choosing for comparative purposes an inspired maverick such as Pletnev and two of the 20th-century’s pianistic giants, Horowitz and Solomon. But Grimaud is no longer a promising newcomer and it seems to me that she has some way to go both technically and interpretatively before she can enter into the pantheon of great pianists.

 

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