THE PIANIST BORN IN FRANCE, & THE "FRENCH" PIANIST

     I’d known about the disk Hélène Grimaud plays Brahms since it came out, but that “glamour” photo on the cover turned me off completely. “Why do I want to hear a pretty girl play Brahms?” I thought. Plus, I knew she was French, so I REALLY didn’t want to hear the disk. (That is, I didn’t want to hear a French pianist play Brahms.)
     But then I happened to read that she is French by nationality only. Her blood is North African, Corsican, and Italian Jewish. Her name was Grimaldi, but her parents changed it! I get the impression she doesn’t much like France or its culture – which already gives her something in common with Brahms. And, I read that he was one of the composers with whom she best identifies. So I purchased the CD.
     Occasionally a pianist interests; Grimaud fascinates.
     Mind you I do not happen to play Brahms that way – she plays him with Scriabinian sensuality. But she has the same smoldering embers (and talent) that Argerich has. And her tempestuousness doesn’t derail her from the details in the score, the fidelity to which is so crucial in Brahms.
     I couldn’t help but read up more on this titan. The more I read, the more I found to like. At age 12 she entered the Paris Conservatoire. (It was good timing; the very next year the minimum entrance age limit was raised to 15.) Even at that age Grimaud rebelled against the “rules” which dictated that everyone play the same repertoire and in the same way. “The French school is France,” she once lamented.1 A new director insisted the students play contemporary music. She rebelled further. At age 15 she made her first recording (!), of which Gramophone et al. took serious notice. In the same year she won a first prize at the conservatory and entered the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow – without her teacher’s permission! But that’s not the best part: Though she made it to an advanced round, she was so disgusted by the computer-like lack of musicality in everyone’s playing that she never entered another competition! Then she quit the conservatory, and – teacherless – set out on her career.
     It wasn’t long before major artists discovered her, such as Daniel Barenboim, Martha Argerich and Gidon Kremer. They got her work. They also got her something more much valuable. They gave her the knowledge that she was not the only “maverick” in the classical world. “I had these strange ideas,” said Grimaud. “People looked at me like I was an extraterrestrial. When I got in touch with these other musicians, I realized I was not the only one.”2
     Did I mention that Hélène raises wolves? Her three British Columbian wolves are Grimaud’s raison d’être. “Wolves are like most wild creatures,” she says. “They want to be left alone.” Perhaps she is speaking from personal experience...
     What is there not to like about this brave and gifted person? I am filled with admiration that she hewed herself a wideopen career without being a subjugate either to authority or to an even heavier millstone: the temptation to be “like everyone else.” Musical gifts, no matter how great, do not presuppose that ability.
      Returning, however, to the recording in question: the interpretations started to wear on me already by the second listening. Contemporary accounts of Brahms’ piano playing all point to a certain “controlled passion.” Somehow the player has to find a way of expressing Brahms’ emotions and atmospheres WITHIN the steel framework of the pulse. Grimaud’s passion is such that the steel tends to melt. The E minor Intermezzo (Op. 116, No. 5) was all but disastrous. She resorted to slightly rolling the chords – all of them – à la Paderewski. This was clearly not the intention of the composer, who often chided Florence May, “No arpège.”3 The Capriccio (No. 7 in the same set) similarly fell apart. The 3/8 section at the end should sound like the End of the World, beats one and three booming like elephant’s feet. Instead Grimaud sprinted like a tiger, killing the momentum which, by the flippant arpeggi in the penultimate measure, had vanished completely. This is certainly not Gallic playing. But it is not Teutonic playing, either.
     In the tenderer pieces, such as the famous Schlaf Sanft Intermezzo (Op. 117, No. 1), Grimaud redeemed herself, playing with the desired sweetness. Nor did the beautiful E minor Intermezzo (Op. 119, No. 2) lack tenderness. But the middle section – nothing less than a Viennese waltz – lacked the forward motion of a dance. This is a major flaw of Brahms interpreters: if the piece isn’t called a waltz, like the Seventeen Waltzes or the two sets of Liebeslieder-Walzer, they’re afraid to let go. The fourth movement of the Requiem really is a Brahms waltz; why not perform it that way? So, too, with the middle section of Op. 119, No. 2, of which no one seems brave enough to liberate the dance.
     The more of Grimaud I heard, the more her playing reminded me of Argerich’s. But like Argerich, or Horowitz, the elemental ardor of individual phrases can fracture the cohesion of the whole. It is perhaps not a coincidence that Horowitz’s weakest composers were Beethoven and Brahms, which are supposed to be Grimaud’s strongest. I worry, therefore, about this trait in Grimaud. The sensuality cannot be allowed to melt the steel. But whereas this Brahms disk was recorded in ’95, (at age 26), I should not make assumptions about what Grimaud sounds like today (at age 34). I only wish she would come to Boston to play a solo recital. She doesn’t live so far away...

April, 2003

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My reason for purchasing Ilana Vered’s CD was even less profound: it was the only disk I could find of a particular Moszkowski étude. My expectations were low because, I confess, I had never heard of Ms. Vered. They were only lowered by the off-putting title, 25 Virtuoso Etudes. Like that’s what the competition-infected piano world needs, another disk with the word “virtuoso” in it
     Well, I’m very happy to report that the title was a poorly chosen one! From the very first notes, it was apparent that this is a “French” pianist who makes music and happens to hit the right notes along the way.
     Born in Israel, Vered studied at the Paris Conservatoire, where she graduated with high honors at age 15. She subsequently studied at Juilliard and built a handsome career in New York, but these facts were happily obliterated by her glowingly musical, very French-sounding disk (much aided by the skillful, not-too-close microphone placement).
     She began not with Liszt but Debussy, two of his études. A brilliant and beautiful way to perfume the air and show the world that she’s all about the music. (Why, then, did she disserve herself with such an inappropriate title? I know, she is a “virtuosa” in the 19th-century sense.)
     After Debussy came Moszkowski, switching from an Impressionistic atmosphere to the smokier one of the salon. No gallicism was lost in the move. The notes are staggeringly there; yet they have this uncanny way of seeming ... I don’t want to say “unimportant,” but it’s as if she’s so busy with melody, harmony, and the elements of music, that she hasn’t got time to dwell too profoundly on the notes (which she knows will be there anyway).
     Rarely does one hear Schumann’s “Seven Etudes in the form of Variations on a theme by Beethoven.” They are a throwback to the days when there was no schism between “musicality” and “technique.” Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Mozart’s piano sonatas – this was true “virtuoso music,” music which does happen to build digital technique but which, even if it didn’t, would still be great music. It was an ingenious repertoire choice for Ms. Vered, in whom there is remarkably little of the aforementioned schism.
     And this is exactly my point: As the days of computer-like playing come to a close, and the audience reaction to automatons like Pollini grows increasingly disappointed, it is time for something new. It is time for pianists such as Ms. Vered, whose technique is musical and whose music-making is technically polished.
     Not surprisingly, Vered’s Liszt (Paganini Etude No. 6) was extraordinarily “right.” This is how I imagined Liszt’s own playing to have sounded: Notes were never just notes; they were characters in the theatre of Mother Nature. There is the famous story of Liszt, whose student Arthur Friedheim was studying the Master’s Harmonies du Soir. Liszt pointed out the window, noting the sky’s crepuscular shadings, and declared, “There are your evening harmonies!”
     From there came no less than nine selections from the greatest étudiste of them all, Frédéric Chopin. These I was sure I wouldn’t like (for no other reason than I tend to detest all Chopin pianists who were born after 1903 – in my mind a very legitimate tendency!). But here, ladies and gentlemen, is the old French school of Chopin playing, blazing back to vivid life! Vered sung her heart out in the famous E Major. The C# minor (probably my favorite of the études) was played so well I wanted to quit the piano. Such exquisite rubato! And such a clip she took! The F Major (probably my least favorite) really convinced with its shape and sparkle. Vered’s “Revolutionary” was decidedly unvirtuosic – she sang it as if it weren’t an étude at all. It was a little too unfirey, though. (Who knows? Maybe Chopin played it that way.) The “Aeolian Harp” really sounded like that instrument – a major feat, which any who’s played the piece knows. The F minor displayed fabulous righthand control and smoothness. The “Thirds” Étude is probably the most fiendishly difficult that Chopin wrote. Vered’s rendition was technically flawless, but the rubati made the performance sound a little careful. On the other hand, they also made it sound more like a piece of music. After all, only the pianists care how hard it is. The audience is too busy listening to the music. Next came the “Cello” Étude, and not since Horowitz has anyone spun out the melody more cantabilmente than Ms. Vered. And finally, the “Ocean Wave” Étude. Far too many pianists make the assumption that the waters were stormy that day! Ms. Vered spared us of this exaggerated point of view and, instead, just gave us the ocean. The way she demarcated the changes of harmony, knowing just what notes to thrust out, made for a thrilling journey. I never imagined that there were a pianist still living who played like this!
     The program concluded with a set by Ezra Laderman, entitled Vered Etudes. It is good music, which Ms. Vered made to sound like great music.

September, 2004

Copyright © MMIII & MMIV Leonardo Ciampa. All rights reserved.

1 New York Times interview with John Rockwell, 29 May 1994.
2 Op. cit.
3 Florence May, Johannes Brahms, Volume I, pp.18f

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