A Philadelphia Tour Preview: Grimaud Offers Grace and Expressivity

United StatesUnited States Brahms, Schumann, Dvořák, Beethoven: Hélène Grimaud (piano), Philadelphia Orchestra / Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 11/20.5.2018 (BJ)11 May
Brahms – Piano Concerto No.1 in D minor, Op.15
Schumann – Symphony No.4 in D minor, Op.120

20 May
Dvořák – Concert Overture Othello, Op.93
Beethoven Piano Concerto No.4 in G major, Op.58; Symphony No.7 in A major, Op.92

In his thought-provoking and brilliantly aphoristic book Piano Pieces, Russell Sherman insists that taking risks is a vital element in any worthwhile musical performance. When I interviewed Hélène Grimaud for Fanfare Magazine in the autumn of 2000, and sought her views on the emotional side of music-making, I was delighted to find her asserting the same principle: ‘If that isn’t there, then…then I’m not sure what the justification is for doing it. And risk-taking, and putting everything on the line—otherwise who needs to get out there?’

Not quite 30 years old, the French-born, US-domiciled pianist struck me then as someone who had a clearer idea of who she was and what she was about than anyone else of comparable youth I had ever encountered. And through the 18 years since then her artistic growth has emphatically confirmed my positive impression, for though refreshingly free from any trace of pretentiousness or arrogance, she has established herself as one of the world’s preeminent pianists while solidifying her reputation as a musician with an unusually firm grasp of style and content in the music she performs.

It happens that the first recordings of hers that I heard were of the same two concertos she and Yannick Nézet-Séguin offered in these two programs, which, aside from figuring on the Philadelphia Orchestra’s home subscription series, served also as preparation for several more performances on the orchestra’s tour of Europe and Israel. I loved her recorded Beethoven Fourth Concerto, but as I frankly confessed during our conversation back in 2000, I had my reservations about the Brahms D-minor: with an unusually slow tempo for the opening Maestoso (though not as slow as Glenn Gould’s in his controversial recording with Leonard Bernstein), it seemed to present two slow movements in a row, the first of them lacking a sense of forward motion.

In the second of the concerts now under consideration, Grimaud’s playing had all the verve and color she and Kurt Masur brought to their 1997 collaboration in the Beethoven Fourth. Possessed of a perfectly magisterial technique, she can make warm and beautiful sounds at the very top of the keyboard, where all too many pianists merely tinkle; her way with emphatic notes in the bass are at once formidable in its power yet never harsh in tone; in the middle register, everything she touches she renders with beguiling grace and expressivity; and she commands a positively awesome crescendo when that is called for.

Speaking of awesome crescendos, timpanist Don Liuzzi produced some that were among the highlights of consistently superb orchestral playing in the Brahms work. Here Grimaud’s first movement this time was truly majestic, where all those years ago I had found it sluggish under her hands. It is worth noting that the tempo was not very different from that of her 1997 recording, yet it did indeed move, thus interestingly demonstrating that mere tempo is less of a determining factor in the success of a performance than subtle nuances of pulse. The central Adagio, contrasting more strongly with the Maestoso, was thereby set free to make a much more touching impression than before, and Grimaud’s tigerish attack in the finale  was as riveting as it already was when it made that movement the most compelling part of the older performance. Altogether Grimaud must surely now be counted among the very finest exponents of the work.

Of the purely orchestral works in these two programs, the most impressive were the Schumann Fourth Symphony, where airy textures, often illuminated by some lovely sound from principal flute Jeffrey Khaner, gave the lie to the frequently expressed view that Schumann couldn’t orchestrate, and Dvořák’s rarely heard Othello overture, in which some unusually bare lines gave the strings an opportunity to display their fabled warmth and precision. I have to say that Grimaud’s sparkling playing of the Beethoven Fourth Concerto was somewhat undermined by the excessively short and fierce staccatos Nézet-Séguin drew from his orchestra—quite unlike the more relaxed quality of the staccatos in the Schumann symphony. And I found his Beethoven Seventh a surprisingly manic reading, with breathlessly rapid tempos — the whirlwind scherzo, for example, must have been taken more than 20 metronome points faster than the 132 prescribed by the composer — and with an uncharacteristic disregard for several of Beethoven’s repeat marks.

Despite my reservations, the concerts were a worthy conclusion to a thoroughly enjoyable season, though the occasion was also a sad one. The Philadelphia public was hearing three distinguished orchestra members for the last time. Richard Woodhams, whose four decades as principal oboe have entitled him to be regarded as the greatest holder of that post in today’s world, retires after the current tour, and so do associate percussionist Anthony Orlando, a stalwart and talented member of the orchestra since 1972, and David Cramer, who joined the orchestra in 1981, becoming associate principal flute three years later, and whom I have admired for his pure tone and stylish phrasing, especially in pre-19th-century music. All three of them will be much missed.

Bernard Jacobson

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