Hélène Grimaud Excels Against Odds in Istanbul Music Festival

TurkeyTurkey Mozart, Berg, Liszt, Bartok: Hélène Grimaud (piano), Istanbul Music Festival, Hagia Eirene Museum, Istanbul 23.6.12 (AM)

Mozart: Piano Sonata in A Minor, No.8, KV. 310
Berg: Piano Sonata, Op.1
Liszt: Piano Sonata in B Minor, L. 178
Bartok: Romanian Folk Dances, Sz. 56, BB 68

Hélène Grimaud’s reprise of her colorful 2010 recital program zigzagged between controversial and outstanding, but never stepped a toe in the dull territory. It started from her contentious A Minor Mozart sonata, a piece that she played rather harshly and pedaled very lavishly. Being Mozart’s most (only?) tragic sonata, I don’t have any qualms with the sonata being played with severe dynamics: Ms. Grimaud’s outburst of pathos suited the first movement’s dominant themes full of dotted melodies and agitated left hand chords. There was indeed much over-pedaling involved, which coupled with the horrific acoustics of the hall, bloated the overall sound. I’ve long objected to classical music concerts being performed at the Hagia Eirene Museum. As magnificent as the setting is, it is no place to perform music. The museum’s towering dome and its ancient stone walls with their myriads of nooks and crannies formed by decay create a horrific boom. Still, Hélène Grimaud managed to present a very excitable interpretation of the first movement helped by her off-meter beats that might have been considered as travesty by Mozart pedants. It worked for me though. The pianist’s second movement was similarly marked by a lack of general sweetness. She played the melodies, the arpeggios and the trills very pointedly. Her slightly extended pauses before resolving Mozart’s sentences produced an air of trepidation which she carried over to the final movement. Ms. Grimaud played a very agitated Presto with overstated off-beats and a resolute finish.

The howling walls of the hall was auspiciously accommodating to Hélène Grimaud’s somewhat romantic approach to Berg’s Sonata. She, with a little help from the acoustics, let the aftereffects of her pounded chords linger on, and as the music began to layer-up and the hesitant tonal center began to disappear during the development, Ms. Grimaud increasingly cut her statements shorter and shorter, as if the middle themes were small variations of the two initial themes. She paid extra attention in bringing us back to the recapitulation, gradually asserting and finally affirming the enigmatic B-minor center.

The second half started with a technical difficulty involving the stage lights. Hélène Grimaud waited for a few minutes for the technicians to direct the spotlights at the piano, but she soon gave up and started the Liszt sonata under very dim lighting. The situation was resolved during a particularly difficult moment in the music. Thankfully, the pianist was not distracted, because her Liszt was stupendous. I personally do not like the B-Minor Sonata, I just don’t. It’s too improvisatory in nature and lacks inspiration. However, Hélène Grimaud’s performance of it almost transcended the music. Her technical mastery was fully exhibited, and she did not miss a single note or expression. I don’t think there’s performance good enough to restore my faith in this piece, but this was truly one that came as close as possible –and this, in spite of the acoustics of the hall working vehemently against the performer. The most exciting moment in Liszt’s sonata is probably the brief silence that comes after the plummeting chords of the initial theme that end with a bang. Well, there was not much silence to speak of here, as the walls and the ceiling continued to echo the thump for what seemed like eternity. Grimaud was at her nicest during the reincarnation of the theme in its sweet melody form, where she played the only pianissimo minutes of the evening.

The evening’s regular schedule ended with Bartok’s Romanian Folk Dances, six miniature pieces that suited the pianists’ temperament perfectly. She played with the rhythms and dynamics with much jubilation and finesse. Hélène Grimaud further exposed her knack for restless music in her two encores. Rachmaninov’s transcription of Gluck’s Melody from Orfeo ed Euridice came first. The music itself, and of course, Rachmaninov’s take on it may sound too romantic when taken at its full intended ration. However, Ms. Grimaud kept the notes slightly out of place accentuating a certain anxiety, even more so in the second part of the melody line which on paper looks resigned. Her second encore, Chopin’s F Minor Nouvelle Etude was also executed restively but with expert technique.

Alain Matalon