Hélène Grimaud @ Koerner Hall reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Sunday, January 23, 2011. Koerner Hall, Toronto.

Mozart: Piano Sonata No. 8 in A Minor, K.310. Hélène Grimaud made it new by tempering the insistent rhythmic drive of minor chords with dynamic gaps of quiet that somehow made the musical edge more cutting. The dissonance of Mozart’s craggy phrases began to suggest the hectic gestures of a mind veering along the edge of an emotional chasm. This is the music of 22 year old Mozart, destitute in Paris, separated from his lover, watching his mother die in misery.

Ms. Grimaud’s demeanour reflects the music. Intensity bends her head toward the keyboard. During passages that ease the tension, such as during the long Andante, she opens her face to the ceiling as if drinking in light. Throughout both moods her concentration embraces the entire hall. During this movement that sings one graceful aria after another, it seems that Mozart exhausts his stock of grieving, so the Finale takes off in a 2/4 gallop, light and lyrical albeit still in minor. Ms. Grimaud’s reading of this work has the clear line and distinct colours of a heartbeat—a signature that marks the works that follow.

Alban Berg: Piano Sonata, Op. 1. Ms. Grimaud’s program is the playlist of her latest CD, Resonances (Deutsche Gramaphone 00289 477 8766). The keynote work which she plays after the Mozart was composed 130 years later, in 1908 by the 23 year old Alban Berg as his apprentice piece after years of study with Arnold Schoenberg. She regards this short (11 minute) composition as the keynote because “it concentrates in a single movement everything that constitutes a Classical sonata movement.” Also, because it explores the limits of tonality,” it is where Mozart’s music “comes to full fruition.”

Berg’s first phrase floats up like a question. It opens an impressionistic flow of chromatic tones, improvisational, dramatic moody, the textures alternately emphatic and dreamy. The future of jazz is here—Monk and John Lewis—riffing amid suspended silences. Ms. Grimaud’s body dances to the music as it builds and releases waves of intensity into space.

Franz Liszt: Piano Sonata in   B Minor, S.178  If Berg’s Opus 1 is the program keynote, Liszt’s only piano sonata provides the meat. This single-movement sonata, like Berg’s, and also in B minor, is instrumentally operatic like Mozart’s. From the dramatically slow, deliberately carved descending scale in Ms. Grimaud’s left hand flow four increasingly energetic and dramatic themes that are worked into a grand architecture that runs for 30 minutes. It is an important work. Richard Wagner loved it, Brahms slept through it, and aspects of the keyboard fingering were studied by Fats Waller and James P. Johnson.

When others, such as Brendel or Markus Groh play it, I hear echoes of Chopin: when Grumiaux plays I do not hear those echoes—it is all Liszt. Passages that seem to transform light into dark are epic, not lyric; in the thunderous cloud of left hand chords crystalline sparks ripple and wink. Hints of passion, Faustian drama, repeatedly transform into running passages of pure music in pursuit of its own protean forms till an ostinato of church bells rings in a slow dissolve.

Béla Bartók: Six Romanian Folk Dances, BB 68.  Brilliant programming to follow heroic grandeur with song and dance music—Bartok’s setting of authentic folk songs of about a minute or less, starting with the “Stick Dance” in which a young man kicks at the ceiling, moving through a “Sash dance,” a “Stamping Dance,” a Polka, and a “Fast Dance.” Ms. Grumiaud’s gifts—respect for the placement of each phrase, clarity of line, and heartfelt colouring—let Bartok close the charmed circle of this recital.

Resonances (Deutsche Gramophone 00289 477 8766).

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