Hélène Grimaud has made two recordings of the C minor concerto. Her re-recording with Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia on Teldec was a generally recommendable one, musically, but less so as regards the recording quality, which was one of those 1950s productions, where the soloist was artificially spotlit. This earlier recording, with the RPO and Jésus Lopez-Cobos was made in 1992 and doesn’t suffer from this balancing demerit. It is not, however, in any way musically superior.
There’s a curious reticence about it all, in this concerto of all concertos, that slides into positive anonymity. Grimaud’s reluctance to assert much sense of dynamism - which might be taken to reflect probity – does, however, become increasingly wearying as the concerto develops. The most alluring moments in the slow movement come from the instrumental soloists, regrettably - diffusion and lack of focus, a lack of tension and power bedevilling the solo part both here and the finale. Her tone, as recorded, is small, and the sense of ambition necessary to project the music’s vitality, sadly missing.
And yet, turn to the 1985 recording of the revised version of the Second Sonata and what does one find? A different player entirely. She was, remarkably enough, only 15 or so when she recorded it, and it’s a splendid performance irrespective of age or background. Here the phrasal possibilities fall securely into place. Where in the concerto she sounded timid and half-hearted, here she plays with panache, authority and an affecting eloquence. She is rhythmically incisive, tonally warm, and nerveless. Much the same applies to the Études-Tableaux Op.33 which she recorded at the same time. This is mature and astute pianism, wholehearted musicianship that garners the highest praise. Her sense of characterisation is first-class and once more one feels the youthful fire of a soloist untrammelled by any obstruction.
How can one resolve the problems of a disc like this? The headline work is beset by too many faults in any way to be recommendable. But the sonata and the Études-Tableaux are first-class in every way.