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Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

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CD 1
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)

Piano Concerto no. 2 in C minor, op. 18
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)

Piano Concerto in G major
Recorded 16th-17th June 1992, Abbey Road Studio, London
CD 2

Piano Sonata no. 2 in B flat minor, op. 36, Études-Tableaux, op. 33 (1-6 complete, and also the rejected studies in C minor and D minor), Preludes, op. 32: 2 in B flat minor, 12 in G sharp minor
Recorded 21st-23rd July 1985, Stadsgehoorzaal Leiden, The Netherlands
CD 3
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)

Ballade no. 1 in G minor, op. 23
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)

Après une lecture de Dante, Fantasia quasi sonata, from Années de Pélerinage Book 2
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)

Piano Sonata no. 1 in F sharp minor, op. 11
Recorded 23rd-25th August 1987, Stadsgehoorzaal Leiden, The Netherlands
CD 4

Kreisleriana, op. 16
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)

Piano Sonata no. 2 in F sharp minor, op. 2
Recorded 28th/30th November 1988, Stadsgehoorzaal Leiden, The Netherlands
CD 5

Piano Sonata no. 3 in F minor, op. 5, Klavierstücke, op. 118
Recorded 13th-14th December 1991, Stadzgehoorzaal Leiden, The Netherlands
Hélène Grimaud (piano)
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 92117 [5 CDs: 55:04, 43:56, 553:53, 58:31, 58:24]

Now repackaged as 92437

These Brilliant sets are very variable over documentation. Some have none at all, a few are quite detailed (for example the Barshai Shostakovich Symphonies). This one has a booklet with the first CD which contains brief but adequate notes to the music in all 5 CDs and a synopsis of Grimaudís career from which at least the first page is omitted as it begins with 1990. This is all the more regrettable when, as you can see, Grimaudís many achievements prior to that date include the recording of three out of five of the present CDs, and I think that listeners without other sources of information to hand would have liked to be told that the pianist was just 15 when she recorded the solo Rachmaninov disc. Not, I hasten to add, because allowances have to be made ("good stuff for a school kid") but because the fact is so remarkable and, indeed, even the most discerning listener unaware of the biographical details is unlikely to guess them.

The Rachmaninov solo disc at once proclaims, alongside an extraordinarily well-equipped technique, the complete naturalness of Grimaudís talent. There is no exhibitionism, no posturing, no empty rhetoric, just an ability to home in on the essence of the composer and to present it without trappings. The ebb and flow of the music is perfectly caught and the composerís often complex counterpoint is always clear, with the right relationship between melody, counter-melody and accompaniment. Since the op. 33 Études-tableaux are not so well-known (the op. 39 set contains several beloved of Richter, Horowitz et al) this is a disc well worth having. The covers and notes are not very helpful about what is played, stating that she plays 1-3 and 5-9 and leaving it at that. If you look these pieces up in an encyclopaedia you will find there are only six of them, so let me explain. Rachmaninov originally intended a set of nine, but when he came to publish them he dropped one in A minor, which he later gathered into op. 39 and which Grimaud does not play, and another two in C minor and D minor respectively, which he left in limbo and which Grimaud has reinstated here.

Perhaps the most thought-provoking disc for me was the third, or at least it provoked my thoughts because just before hearing it I had been reading Paul Shoemakerís review of some Liszt played by Tamás Vásáry. Vásáry, according to Shoemaker, approaches Liszt and Chopin, not from the point of view of someone well versed in all the music which came after them, but plays Chopin as Schubert might have played him and Liszt as he might have been interpreted by Clara Schumann. Or by any other intelligent musician of the time well-versed in the piano literature up till then. I must say my own impressions of Vásáry have hitherto been negative but I had not thought of listening to him in this light and look forward to trying him again. Iím raising all this because it seems to me that Grimaud is doing very much the same thing. Her Chopin Ballade has a Schubertian songfulness and lilt which is far removed from the post-Rachmaninovian neurosis often imposed on it. Donít mistake me, it is neither underplayed nor rhythmically rigid, but the sort of rubato applied does not go beyond that which would be natural in Schubert. Her Liszt, on the other hand, has the sort of rhythmic continuity one would expect from a Beethoven sonata, with the result that the piece (which in some hands can degenerate into mere noise) is shorn of bombast and stands up as a satisfying structure. Likewise Schumannís sprawling First Sonata is unusually convincing, especially in its first two movements (there is little that can be done to save the messy finale).

This very fine disc illustrates the perplexity which a musician in the late 1830s must have felt; with Beethoven and Schubert barely a decade in their graves, here were three composers striking out in remarkably different paths.

I had a few reservations near the start of Kreisleriana Ė in the first piece the off-beat accents are so strong that the first beat is lost and with it the sense of syncopation, and in the second intermezzo of no. 2 the phrases are too separated for the flow of the music Ė but I increasingly settled down to enjoy a performance which enters equally into the feverish excitement and the withdrawn poetry typical of Schumann. I wonít throw out Horowitz and a host of others (thereís a phenomenal version of just the first three by Gieseking once available on Forlane and deriving from a Urania disc) but Iím glad to have it.

Brahmsís début as a sonata-writer (the second sonata precedes the first by a year) is an uncharacteristic experiment in Lisztian form; with its stop-go finale it may be the one truly unsatisfactory piece the composer ever wrote. Grimaudís unfailing musicianship shows it in as favourable light as possible.

The Third Sonata is a much finer piece and has encouraged some memorable readings on record. With the innocence of youth, Grimaud seems to resolve interpretative problems by not realising they exist (I wonder if life has been so unproblematic in the ensuing years?). In comparison such rivals as the meticulously-textured Stephen Hough (Hyperion) and the old wizard Earl Wild (Ivory Classics) can seem, respectively, ponderous and quixotic. In the scherzo there is a lilt to her rhythm which neither of the other two quite capture.

The old adage was that you have to be fifty to play Brahms. If the comment has any truth at all it would apply to the late miniatures opp. 116-119, yet Grimaud gets sufficiently close to the heart of op. 118 to give the lie to it. Even so, when I turned to the version by Joyce Hatto (Concert Artists) I realised that in this music the fact of having played it and thought about it for so many years has its own advantages. Hatto gauges exactly the right tempi for the slower pieces, no. 2 and 5 in particular, so that they flow without any hint of stickiness, while her fires are still undimmed for the final page of no. 4. But for me the real revelation of the session was listening to Julius Katchen in this group. I am well aware that Katchenís Brahms has been hailed as one of the monuments of the LP era, but I have always found his mixture of insights and gross rhythmic distortion pretty well impenetrable. This time, in an early morning, having slept on Grimaud and Hatto, something clicked and the pieces seemed to be born into life as Katchen played them. Enthralling, though I still maintain they are a bad model and should not be heard too often!

The concerto disc is perhaps the least remarkable, though you wonít regret acquiring it along with the others. The Rachmaninov contains much that is natural and sympathetic in a quietly understated way. If you find the second subject of the last movement rather slow, it is exactly on the composerís metronome mark, but this may be a matter of chance rather than design since the following passage in triplets falls well below Rachmaninovís marking and the music really does sag. The first movement of the Ravel is a little too much pulled-about Ė I missed the patrician glint of Michelangeliís famous reading. Having praised Michelangeli I suppose it would not be fair to say I was not entirely convinced by Grimaudís left-hand-before-right playing in the slow movement (and several other times throughout these CDs), since he does the same thing! I must say that the finale is the most successful Iíve heard since Michelangeli Ė the sheer difficulty of the music gets most pianists bogged down at various points but Grimaud seems unruffled by it all. The conducting is decent, no more.

Grimaud has already re-recorded some of this music; no doubt much else will follow. Piano-fanciers who wish to catch up on the first recording of a major pianistic force of today will be glad to snap them up so cheaply. Those who happen upon the set in a supermarket and are simply attracted by the possibility of increasing their knowledge of romantic piano music could hardly hope for a more musical or sympathetic guide to it.

Christopher Howell



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