Hélène Grimaud, piano. Beethoven: Sonata Op. 109. Brahms: Three Intermezzi Op. 117; Fantasien Op. 116. Bach-Busoni: Chaconne. Koerner Hall, Feb. 11, 2024. Presented by the Royal Conservatory of Music.
“Interesting program” is a concept that can manifest itself in many ways. French pianist Hélène Grimaud realized the elusive ideal Sunday in Koerner Hall not by exploring the outskirts of the repertoire but by assembling a dense sequence of A-list works by the traditional Three Bs.
Much of the music was by Brahms, whose late pieces are probably more often heard individually than in groups. Grimaud played the seven Fantasien Op. 116 as an integrated suite, beginning and ending with a vehement Capriccio in D Minor, each given the full-fingered treatment.
There were tender Intermezzi in between, as well as a furious Capriccio in G Minor, functioning more or less as a scherzo. I admired in particular the Intermezzo in E Minor (Op. 116 No. 5 for those scoring at home). So elliptical on the surface, the nervous little pairs of quavers took on the quality of speech.
There was Brahms also before intermission, the Three Intermezzi Op. 117, assertively done. The lyrical first Intermezzo was taken quickly, as much a wakeup call as a lullaby, and the turbulent second veered close to a toccata in character. The third showed a fondness for hesitations on upbeats.
It was, indeed, an afternoon of ample rubato — more than was needed in the first movement of Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 109, with which Grimaud began the recital. Less clutter would have yielded more clarity of expression. All the same, Grimaud captured the solemn but hopeful character of the hymnlike theme of the finale and managed the trills of the last variation impressively.
But I must return to the second half and the Op. 116 set, which came bundled with an enormous pseudo-finale in the form of the Busoni arrangement of Bach’s Chaconne, also in D Minor and played after the Brahms without a break. Brahms was certainly an admirer of the Chaconne, having transcribed it himself for piano left hand, but the rationale for attaching such a staggering masterpiece to his Op. 116 escapes me. We need to take a breath between Bs!
At any rate, it was a virtuoso performance, boldly projected. Grimaud does not stint on sonority. Vigorous applause ensued. The encore was Valentin Silvestrov’s tuneful (and quite tonal) Bagatelle No. 2.
Now for some non-musical matters. At the request of the artist, lights in Koerner Hall were kept at a low level that made Grimaud’s glittering outfit stand out dramatically but rendered the printed program illegible. It is natural for listeners to want to know what they are hearing, especially in the midst of a bunch of like-titled Intermezzi and Capriccios.
Another downside to the cinematic lighting was the extra prominence the darkness gave to the few audience members who fired up their cellphones in defiance of hall policy and common courtesy. More vigilance by the ushers would help.
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