Piano Concerto No.4*
Sonata in E, Op.109
Sonata in A flat, Op.110
Helene Grimaud (piano) with *New York Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Kurt Masur
Reviewed by: Ying Chang
Reviewed: January 2001
CD No: TELDEC 3984-26869-2
Hélène Grimaud’s engagement and single-mindedness are apparent from the very first chord of the concerto. The pianist does not steal in; she makes a precise call to arms. Grimaud presents an iron Beethoven, strong rather than poetic, Florestan not Eusebius, a Beethoven of exposition not seduction. In interviews, Hélène Grimaud has stated her affinity with German culture rather than with her native France and on this evidence she is proved correct. Masur, whose first act is to soften the melodic line after the pianist’s entry, is a sympathetic accompanist, more affectionate and less driven than his soloist is.
Above all, Grimaud’s is Beethoven of structure, each phrase organically linked to the next, precisely graded sequences and crescendi (for instance from 12’ 09” or 13’ 50”), each transition clearly sign-posted, with never an attempt to draw a veil of illusion over the pillars on which Beethoven’s forms are built. Even the first movement cadenza (or, indeed, the arpeggiation in the first movement of Op.109) betrays no hint of its improvisatory ancestry, but is played as a dramatic culmination within an inevitable progression. If Grimaud consciously eschews mystery, the sheer commitment and intensity of the performances nevertheless gives them a heroic quality.
In an interpretative age equally and oppositely plagued by histrionics and over-competent monotony, her Beethoven is reassuringly traditional. It can also be relentless. She is frequently reluctant to let phrases smile, an approach heard at its worst at the start of the slow movement, where Masur and the NYPO fulminate convincingly but Grimaud fails to supply the necessary lyrical counterpart.
Only in the finale does the performance benefit from the fact it is recorded live. As if purified by the discipline of the first two movements, soloist and orchestra permit themselves to run free, to duet with spontaneity and excitement, to take risks that Grimaud’s constructivist shaping has so far forbidden.
There are few surprises come the late sonatas, though the performances are impressively coherent. Grimaud shows characteristic certainty and purpose in Op109, the scherzo analytical and stripped of whimsy, the big variation movement very successful in its passionate control.
At the opening of Op110 for about a minute, Grimaud seems willing to let the lyricism flow and speak for itself – then she takes control again. The scherzo is severe, presented as a restless struggle for harmonic resolution, rather than an exercise in quirkiness or wit; Grimaud’s approach is though ideal for the fugal finale, perfectly crafted.
There is no audience noise during the concerto – indeed, the artist’s gasps for breath at tense moments are far more audible. The recording overall is bright and clear, with close but very life-like piano sound.
If you are a wolf-lover, this disc will send you into raptures, since its booklet serves as a showcase for Grimaud’s second career as a conservationist. Otherwise, you will find it interesting, worthy, admirable but seldom loveable