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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat, Op. 73, Emperora (1810) [38:18]
Piano Sonata No. 28 in A, Op. 101b (1816) [20:58]
Hélène Grimaud (piano)
aStaatskapelle Dresden/Vladimir Jurowski.
rec. aLukaskirche, Dresden, December 2006; bSiemens-Villa, Berlin, July 2007. DDD
Includes promotional DVD
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 477 7149 [59:16]


Hélène Grimaud remains one of the most individual – and hence unclassifiable – pianists of today. Her autobiography, Wild Harmonies: A Life of Music and Wolves (Riverhead) provides some clues, as headstrong tales of music are interwoven with wolf lore. The accompanying promotional DVD to this disc finds her referring to the philosophical aspects of Beethoven. She is still young, and so fearless in the face of these towering edifices of the repertoire. Despite that she seems concurrently aware of the responsibility she faces when setting her interpretations down on such a high-profile disc. 

Having said all that, one of the reasons for acquiring this disc could easily be the resplendent sound of the Staatskapelle Dresden, surely one of the great orchestras. Jurowski inspires them to play with great vigour, presumably a deliberate contrast to Grimaud’s rather dreamy take on matters. The recording is crystal clear. I played the disc on two separate systems; on the cheaper of the two the piano high end sounded rather tinny while this was not a problem on the higher-end equipment. 

Grimaud has a technique which is strong but still betrays struggle at times. Listen for example to the (in)famous passage around 6:50 into the first movement. But it is her interpretation that fascinates. The passage around 14:29 is where most pianists relax the tempo a little - interestingly, Pollini in his earlier DG recording more than most; not Grimaud. As the performance runs on, Grimaud makes one feel that it has a certain rightness, if not greatness. The feminine element to the delicacy in Beethoven is not inappropriate, and she displays great power when necessary, too. You can hear this in the big, climactic chords in dialogue with the orchestra. It is the underlying power of her playing that leaves the most lasting impression. 

The slow movement moves well. The Dresden strings are magnificent, but it is Grimaud that plays like a dream. She includes some harsh attacks in her timbral vocabulary: 3:15 - deliberately, surely?. This implies that all is not as refulgent as it may at first seem. The miraculous transition to the last movement is managed with held breath, leading to a movement that is full of internal energy as well as pure speed. Grimaud is not afraid to use iron fingers when she deems it appropriate, either, contrasting with passages of amazing delicacy. The very final flourishes sound ever so slightly laboured; again, one has to ask whether this is deliberate? 

To tackle late Beethoven just shows what type of risks Grimaud is willing to take. Schnabel in 1934 remains one of my benchmarks in Op. 101, with Pollini the modern reference - currently on DG Originals. Grimaud lavishes much love on this work. The opening is peaceful and assured, in total contrast to the second movement where Grimaud is very obviously jerky, very aware of Beethoven the experimenter, without her playing ever not sounding like Beethoven. She finds much beauty – a strange beauty – amongst Beethoven's impeccable logic. 

The promo DVD includes a film of Grimaud tackling the C major first Prelude from Bach‘s Das wohltemperierte Clavier, plus sundry, and brief, rehearsal footage and commentary. There is a choice of English version with German subtitles, or French version. A discussion of her disc Credo acts in pure promotion; while the final taster of Bach is maybe a hint of things to come?

Colin Clarke

Evan Dickerson received the press advanced copy of this disc

Firstly, let me make it clear that the luxurious press pack I received in relation to this disc only included the performance of the concerto and not the sonata, so my comments are limited in scope as a result.

Reading through the accompanying documentation it is impossible to avoid phrases such as, "Sound for Hélène Grimaud is space for thought – a place where everything is possible. It also means taking the world apart in order to put it back together in a new form. And that’s precisely what she does, whilst remaining true to her idol Ludwig van Beethoven […] Grimaud is a philosopher at the concert grand who confronts in interpretation our present-day chaos […] The piano concerto is a beast, for whom one has incredible respect."

So much for the music being left to speak for itself or Grimaud’s interpretation making its own mark amongst the crowded field of alternative versions. We are promised something different – "new, fresh, contemporary" – but is it delivered?

In a word, yes. This is a fresh and vital recording of the concerto from first bar to last. The orchestra is admirably full of body, with the recording sneaking in details such as the precision of the timpani, that really do add enough to make you want to sit up and take notice. Vladimir Jurowski adopts a typically bullish tempo for the opening movement that ensures things are kept moving. The moments of aside that the soloist offers are rightly taken as contrast within a whole; even Grimaud’s tone intimates this as she shades the line accordingly. Her playing, which can have a tendency to be big-boned for its own sake when heard live, largely avoids that characteristic, though it is produced when required in some impressively full chord work.

The second movement Adagio is more inward looking – as it should be – though it never becomes slack. Grimaud and Jurowski are remarkably attuned in finding and maintaining a light and airy atmosphere throughout. The transition to the third movement is most sensitively played by Grimaud, whereupon she picks up the new mood instantly and Jurowski underlines this sensitively as the closing Rondo progresses. Much as I admire the readings of, say, Fischer and Furtwängler or Pollini and Abbado, they do sound a touch staid alongside the sparkle that is palpable between all concerned on this present CD.

Evan Dickerson


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