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Seen and Heard Recital Review

Chopin and Rachmaninov: Hélène Grimaud (piano), RFH, Wednesday, February 9th, 2005 (CC)

Essentially a promo concert for her new disc (to be reviewed shortly), this concert initially raised eyebrows for its sheer brevity. There was a slight programme change (replacing Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantaisie with his Berceuse), but it was all over by about ten past nine, and that with an extended interval.

And what of the self-styled sexy/mysterious, wolf-loving Wunderkind herself? She was taking a risk, maybe, juxtaposing Chopin’s masterpiece of the Second Sonata with Rachmaninov’s own Second Sonata (in her own edition). Would Rachmaninov’s cracks show especially obviously in the Polish sunshine?

Maybe she thought they wouldn’t if Chopin was under-represented. A surprisingly harsh treble in the Chopin Barcarolle meant that it was difficult to enter this intimate world. The whole performance smacked of over-projection, while the overall interpretative impression was of a half-formed reading, the climax effortful. The D flat Berceuse actually sounded French through and through, but the most disturbing facet of this was that the filigree was neither ornamental nor was it granted more substantive importance. It occupied a rather grey middle ground, in keeping with a generally literally presented outlook without any underlying deconstructionist aesthetic. Moments of textural magic hardly redeemed the major failings.

So to the Second Sonata, the B flat minor. Here Grimaud was more comfortable, her sound more obviously big, the whole first movement shot through with real urgency. Yet there were no contrastive pianos and, despite fairly high adrenalin pumping around, some of the development just sounded like padding. And her distracting habit of stamping on the pedal hardly helped. At least in the second movement Grimaud took real risks, even if they sometimes led to splashiness. Nice though that the Trio was made to feel like a close relation to the first two works in the recital. But it was back to the nondescript for the famous funeral march. Harmonic shifts were underplayed, while an important early harmonic shift was hardly the cri de coeur it can and should be. The famous consolatory theme was ‘nice’ rather than a shaft of light from other realms. Opting for Debussian pedal in the finale made it sound Impressionist rather than mysterious.

Horowitz opened the doors for Rachmaninov’s Second Sonata to be subjected to various ‘performing editions’, and Grimaud presented her very own after the interval. She clearly shows greater affinity with this composer. Her clarity was very praiseworthy (it is so easy to over-pedal Rachmaninov). Occasionally, she seemed to be playing up the Chopin inherent in Rachmaninov, perhaps over-emphasising the links between the two halves of the evening. If there was intimacy in the ‘Non allegro’, it was pitted against a cantabile legato that became broken in dynamics above mezzo-forte. Her finale was the highlight of the evening, almost primal and black, with Grimaud clearly demonstrating her feeling for the ebb and flow of this structure.

Ultimately, very disappointing. Look out for my review of her latest disc on DG, by the way, coming soon.

Colin Clarke



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