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Hélène Grimaud (piano) - The Warner Recordings
rec. various locations, 1995-2001
ERATO 2564 622737 [6 CDs: 370:54]

Warner Classics, in this case, are not so much flogging a dead horse as a cash cow; no disrespect to Hélène Grimaud intended. It is just that if you look through the back catalogue of Ms Grimaud’s Warner recordings you will find that all these have been released before in various guises since their original appearance. Their history in the catalogue includes a box set from 2006 which collected the self-same six albums as presented here. There is no doubt regarding the outstanding value of this set — six CDs for little more than the price of one full priced disc. However, it might well put some people off if they have a few of the originals, or any of the subsequent recordings. Even so, each disc has a lot to offer and this set would fill many a gap in anyone's collection of recordings by this spirited French pianist.

The first disc offers an excellent account of one of my favourite piano concertos, that by Robert Schumann. Whilst it doesn’t quite overtake the likes of Radu Lupu and Murray Perahia it features highly in my ranking of CDs of this work. It's coupled with a work which, despite its relative obscurity has garnered numerous recordings: the Burleske for piano and orchestra by Richard Strauss. Despite many recordings this piece deserves to be better known, especially in the concert hall. Here Hélène Grimaud gives a performance which rivals those that I know and should serve the cause of this music very well indeed.

The second and fourth discs are devoted to the music of Brahms. The first presents a selection of his solo piano music whilst the second brings us the Piano Concerto No. 1. I well remember the many plaudits attracted by the original release of the Concerto disc. I prefer the solo piano disc, but that is just me and I have always favoured Brahms the pianist over Brahms the composer of orchestral works. We are offered relatively late works. The Fantasien Op. 116, the Drei Intermezzi Op. 117 and the Klavierstücke Opp. 118 and 119 were all published in the final five years of the composer’s life. These are mature and well-rounded compositions and Hélène Grimaud matches the intensity of the music. Her performance of the Concerto is well focused too, with Sanderling and the Staatskapelle Berlin proving fine and complementary partners.

Disc three is the weak link in this box although these are well played versions of the Gershwin and Ravel. I just find them a little too Romantic. I don’t know if it is Grimaud’s or Zinman’s interpretation, but both works seem a little deprived of the jazzy overtones that one has come to expect. I remember thinking this when the CD first appeared, and on listening afresh I am afraid I still have the same reservations. The performances from both soloist and orchestra are however, still first rate, and these are certainly not the worst interpretations I have come across.

Disc five gives us a live Beethoven Fourth Piano Concerto recorded in New York with Kurt Masur. Whilst I would now usually opt for period performances of this work, I have always enjoyed Grimaud's recording. She is fresh and concise and the sound is remarkably good for a live recording. As well as the concerto we have excellent performances of the Sonatas Nos. 30 and 31. These are akin to the two ugly sisters in comparison to the 'Cinderella' of the Sonata No 29, the wonderful ‘Hammerklavier’. Here, without the comparison, they shine, especially with the great sense of poise and enjoyment that Grimaud radiates.

The final disc offers us what has become the great warhorse of the piano concerto repertoire: Rachmaninov’s ever-popular Second. Here Grimaud is aided by Vladimir Ashkenazy, who of all modern performers must have the greatest pedigree when it comes to this work both as a pianist, and as here, as conductor. Grimaud and Ashkenazy conjure up an experience to savour. You get a strong sense of the expertise of the master being passed on to the pupil. The result, certainly ranks with the best. The magic is carried over into the solo piano pieces. It is a shame though that only one prelude and three of the Études-Tableaux were recorded. Given the chance, as she is in the Corelli Variations, Grimaud really shines.

This is an excellent set therefore; one which would complement most collections. Even the Gershwin and Ravel might suit other tastes. In fact the only real gripe I have relates to the booklet notes. Thankfully they are short. The fawning drivel we get from Pierre-Yves Lascar, has less to do with the music and more with his apparent love for and devotion to Hélène Grimaud. Fortunately the works are well enough known so that we do not need to bother with the booklet.

Stuart Sillitoe

CD 1 [52:30]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Piano Concerto [30:23]
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Burleske [21:51]
Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin/David Zinman
rec. Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin, June 1995

CD 2 [75:09]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Fantasien Op.116 [22:43]
Drei Intermezzi Op.117 [15:00]
Klavierstücke Op.118 [22:21]
Klavierstücke Op.119 [14:29]
rec. Reitstadel, Neumarkt, Germany, November 1995

CD 3 [54:53]
George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
Piano Concerto [32;31]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Piano Concerto in G [21:55]
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra/David Zinman
rec. Joseph Mayerhoff Symphony Hall, Baltimore, May 1997

CD 4 [50:09]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Concerto No. 1 [50:09]
Staatskapelle Berlin/Kurt Sanderling
rec. live, Schauspielhaus, Berlin, October 1997

CD 5 [73:24]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No. 4 [34:05]
Piano Sonata No. 30 [19:56]
Piano Sonata No. 31 [18:45]
New York Philharmonic/Kurt Masur
rec. live, 1999, Avery Fisher Hall, New York (Concerto); Purchase College, Purchase, New York, 1999 (Sonatas)

CD 6 [64:49]
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Piano Concerto No. 2 [35:18]
Prelude in G sharp minor Op. 32 No. 12 [2:54]
Études -Tableaux Op. 33 No. 1 [3:07] No. 2 [2:58] No. 9 [2:48]
Variations on a theme of Corelli Op. 42 [17:37]
Philharmonia Orchestra/Vladimir Ashkenazy,
rec. Colosseum, Watford, September 2000 (Concerto); Teldec Studio, Berlin, June 2000 and January 2001 (solo piano works)