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Luciano BERIO (1925-2003)
Encores: Wasserklavier (1965) [2:11]
Toru TAKEMITSU (1930-1996)
Rain Tree Sketch II (1982) [5:29]
Gabriel FAURÉ (1945-1924)
Barcarolle No. 5 in F sharp minor, Op. 66 (1893) [6:39]
Isaac ALBÉNIZ (1860-1909)
Iberia, Book II (1905-09): Almeria [10:06]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Années de pèlerinage III, S163 (1877): No. 4, Les Jeux d’eau à la Villa d’Este [7:38]
Nitin SAWHNEY (b. 1964)
Water – Transitions Nos. 1-7
Hélène Grimaud (piano); Nitin Sawhney (keyboard, guitar, programming)
rec. Love, Park Avenue Armory, New York City, December 2014 (Grimaud); London, Summer 2015 (Sawhney)

Hélène Grimaud has always been one of the most questing pianists of the younger generation, and this “album” (for such it is) is no exception. It is very much a concept album, based on the idea of water, but made up of pieces which, as Grimaud says, “transcend benign naturalistic depiction of Nature.” It is also a collaboration with the magnificently talented Nitin Sawhney, who has provided a sequence of seven “Water - Transitions”; Grimaud’s contribution was (superbly) recorded live in recital in New York, while Sawhney’s pieces were recorded in London in the Summer of 2015.

Grimaud’s way with Luciano Berio’s evocative Wasserklavier is beautiful (one is tempted to say fluid!) and tenderly toned and voiced. Interestingly, it comes up against recent competition in Albert Tiu’s album The Classical Elements (Centaur 3503). Tiu presents groups of five pieces each for each of the four elements: his Wasserklavier is sandwiched between Debussy’s “Reflets dans l’eau” (from Images I) and Mompou’s “El lago” (from Paisajes). Interestingly, Tiu, a little less atmospheric and certainly less well recorded than Grimaud, sees the Berio as a “prelude” (his word, from his booklet notes) to the Mompou, whereas Grimaud’s Wasserklavier dissolves into Sawhney’s first transition piece, a melding of worlds. There are only two seconds in the durations of the performances (Grimaud 2:11, Tiu 2:13) but Grimaud takes the honours easily.

Takemitsu’s Rain Tree Sketch II is perfectly post-Debussian, slow moving and evocative and leads to the crystalline, short Water-Transition 2. The move to Fauré (the Fifth Barcarolle) is stark indeed, back to a more traditional sound and even harmony. Grimaud’s Barcarolle is impassioned and given with determination; there is nothing wishy-washy about Grimaud’s Fauré. She is preferable to Charles Owen on Avie and reminiscent in mastery to Germaine Thyssen-Valentin’s Fauré (Testament SBT 1215 for all the Barcarolles coupled with the Thème et Variations). Sawhney’s response to the Fauré is even more elusive, beginning with a ghostly whisper before his guitar adds a sense of almost but not quite minimalistic movement. A fade seems to imply moving into the distance, but is undermined by an enigmatic electronic bass gesture. Ravel’s pliable Jeux d’eau seems to liberate that rhythmic constraint Sawhney seemed to seek to introduce. Again Grimaud’s Ravel stands firm against the finest (Argerich springs to mind!).

The fourth Water-Transition piece is possibly the most intriguing, stuttery and yet warm at the same time, like fractured light upon water, perhaps. It seems that the opening of Albéniz’ “Almeria” is there to calm the nerves. Grimaud follows the music’s waft and wend beautifully, sculpting the piece with real confidence. Sawhney’s gentle Fifth Transition (a mere 55 seconds) leads into Grimaud’s powerful Liszt. Cascades of notes are not merely decorative here, but come from an inner core of strength and as such are qualitatively different from Ravel’s effusive jets.

Sawhney’s sixth Transition is arguably his most mysterious, perhaps to mirror the title of the Janàček (In the Mists). Grimaud’s Janàček is magnificently twilit, her pedal work absolutely exemplary. It would be wonderful to hear more of her Janàček; collectors will have their preferences here, perhaps with András Schiff or Iván Klánsky, but Grimaud’s take is massively impressive.

Sawhney’s final Transition is perfectly judged to steer the listener into the well-known murky waters of Debussy’s submerged cathedral. Grimaud’s performance is carefully shaped but massively atmospheric.

Sawhney’s contributions are (generally) electronic, and certainly all have an electronic element, and are evidently inspired by their surroundings; yet they meld into those surroundings perfectly. Soft and approachable, yet mysterious, they seem to sum up the ethos of the element of water itself.

The disc ends with a ten-minute “Bonus” – Grimaud’s “thoughts on the permutations of water,” as it is announced in the booklet. And if you read the booklet, it will certainly all sound familiar but here Grimaud’s statements are all interspersed with short music examples, and the effect is to underline just how personal this project was for her.

Bravos all round!

Colin Clarke



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