Grimaud explores watery musical depths at Shriver Hall
Hélène Grimaud’s work at the piano tends toward refinement and elegance, more than bravura power. The French pianist was supposed to open Shriver Hall’s season in 2014 but had to withdraw because of a finger injury, to be replaced by Angela Hewitt. She finally returned to Baltimore on Sunday evening, for the first time since 2006.
The first half, drawn from the “Water” program Grimaud released on the Deutsche Grammophon label earlier this year, was reflective in the meditative and aquatic senses of the word. The eco-conscious pianist’s twee program note describes this selection of music as a “meditation on contrasting incarnations of water – gushing, trickling, raging, falling.”
Two opening pieces in slow, trickling style might seem risky for some pianists, who would rather grab an audience’s attention. Grimaud, by contrast, drew us into this world of water, taking her time on the many rolled chords of Luciano Berio’s Wasserklavier, with its allusions to earlier composers’ musical descriptions of water. In Tōru Takemitsu’s Rain Tree Sketch II, Grimaud continued her exploration of the dripping, pooling qualities of water, the work’s luscious chords a tribute to French composer Olivier Messiaen.
Grimaud’s plan then led us into music depicting the more tidal rolling of waves with Fauré’s Barcarolle No. 5, cascades of notes rippling with rhythmic freedom. Likewise, the “Almería” movement from Albéniz’s Iberia brought something of the gentle waves of the Mediterranean Sea. Grimaud’s rubato here became a bit predictable, slowing at the end of almost every measure, and heavy pedaling obscured the folksong-like cantillations in the melody.
The peak, or high tide as it were, of the concert came in two depictions of fountains flinging water into the air. Ravel’s Jeux d’Eau and its model, “Les Jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este” from the third year of Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage, purled off Grimaud’s fingers with delicacy. Her heavy pedaling again caused some loss of clarity, but the murky quality was equally pleasing.
Two concluding pieces, the Andante from Janáček’s In the Mists and “La cathédrale engloutie” from the first book of Debussy’s Preludes, allowed the surging energy at the middle of the half to subside just as gracefully. When Grimaud performed a longer version of this “Water” recital in New York, she reportedly played in a pool that slowly filled with shallow water. Such a gimmick is evidently not at all necessary for the program to work.
Brahms’s Second Piano Sonata after intermission was not as successful. Brahms composed three piano sonatas in 1853, and the first two were like calling cards for Brahms to play when he visited Robert and Clara Schumann in Düsseldorf. Robert Schumann was impressed, calling these sonatas “veiled symphonies” that turned the piano “into an orchestra of wailing and jubilant voices.” For his part Brahms never touched the genre again, possibly disheartened by Liszt’s transformative Piano Sonata in B Minor, published the following year and also dedicated to Robert Schumann.
Grimaud gave the booming double octaves of the first movement a lightness, preferring élan and excitement over heaviness. In the second movement Grimaud brought out the left-hand melody with a singing legato. The accompaniment lacked the fullness of color identified by Schumann, except in the large middle section where Brahms notated the music on three staves like an organ score. The Scherzo’s sweet trio section was the high point, a dreamy take on the theme that sounds like hunting horn calls. Grimaud de-emphasized the stentorian introduction of the Lisztian finale, favoring instead the rhapsodic runs in the right hand and a fast tempo for the main section.
Two Rachmaninoff encores–the Second and Third Études-Tableaux from Op. 33–suited Grimaud’s lyrical strengths better than the somewhat cursory Brahms. The focus on transparent figuration and trills, ornamenting Rachmaninoff’s sugary melodies, played again to Grimaud’s forte of doling out the sweets.
The next concert at Shriver Hall will feature pianist Inon Barnatan, clarinetist Anthony McGill, and cellist Alisa Weilerstein, 5:30 p.m. January 22. shriverconcerts.org; 410-516-7164.