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Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-49)
Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 35 (1839) [25’16]. Berceuse in D flat, Op. 57 (1844) [4’50]. Barcarolle in F sharp, Op. 60 (1846) [8’35].
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 36 (1931 version with borrowings from the 1913 version) [23’08].
Hélène Grimaud (piano).
Rec. Siemens-Villa, Berlin in December 2004. DDD
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 477 5325 [62’07]


This is exactly what Hélène Grimaud played at London’s Royal Festival Hall recently (; and just look at the playing time!). Nerves clearly played an element in the Grimaud-live experience, as this is one disc that is preferable to the live event. But given the hype that Grimaud has been enjoying, this disc is ultimately somewhat disappointing, while remaining a rare occasion when the CD is preferable to the frisson of a live event.

Grimaud sandwiches the Rachmaninov between two bouts of Chopin; the recital closed with the Rachmaninov. Immediately juxtaposing the two B flat minor Second Sonatas (if only their opus numbers had matched, too – so close!) pays dividends as we have two composers, arguably at their best in miniatures, flexing their musico-structural muscles.

The Chopin Second is notoriously tricky to bring off, partially because of ‘that’ finale. It may only last around 1½ minutes (1’35 here), but its elusive wind has blown through the gravestones of many a pianist. But it is not only the finale. There is the ‘impulsive’ nature of much of the material of the first movement - which Grimaud projects very well. Grimaud sounds more natural than at the RFH, indeed more aware of what is actually going on. The fragmentation of the initial motif of the ‘Doppio movimento’ at around 4’25 sees Grimaud making the listener very aware of the gestural fragmentation at work here. The recording supports her well (nice and deep at the opening), but does on occasion sounds as if the pianist is taking it close to overload.

The Scherzo, splashy at the South Bank, here sounds rather more awkward, the repeated notes awkward, rather like a stutter, and while care is evident in the Trio, there is still the impression that Grimaud is only 90% involved - as opposed to around 60% everywhere else.

If the Marche funèbre is more concentrated than was the case in London, it still avoids the nightmarish. Again the shaft of light (around 2’30 here) fails to make full effect, and a left-hand trill - just before the nine-minute mark - is well-drilled but expressionless. The finale works better here than live, without being seriously disturbing in any way.

The Berceuse (that here emerges as aural balm after the ravages of the Rachmaninov) and the Barcarolle are given in reverse order from the London recital. The Barcarolle is in the event a lovely way to close the disc, Grimaud obviously not trying to play to anywhere’s furthest reaches, instead trying to bring the listener to her, subtly. And succeeding this time.

Rachmaninov’s Second Sonata is heard here in the 1931 version ‘with borrowings from the 1913 version’. The version does not entirely rescue Rachmaninov from charges of bombast, it must be admitted, but the affinity Grimaud enjoys with this composer, noted at the time of the London recital, is once more clear. The second movement - with the rather strange indication, ‘Non allegro’ - begins in rather a doodly fashion, yet as the music progresses so does Grimaud’s identification; and the varied terrain of the finale comes across well, with plenty of rhythmic drive to propel the listener to the end.

The booklet includes an interview by Michael Church with the pianist. Grimaud states that this disc is ‘about death and transcendence’. She also says that Horowitz making his own version of the Rachmaninov ‘made me feel I was not necessarily being presumptuous in making my own’. Many of the points she makes – about Chopin and Rachmaninov – actually have real beauty about them. A great pity the playing, whatever its strengths, does not match up to these thoughts.

Colin Clarke


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