New Classical Tracks: Traveling through time with Bach

by Julie Amacher
April 14, 2009

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Helene Grimaud (Album cover)

On her latest disc, Helene Grimaud plays Bach, both in the original and in transcriptions made by Romantic keyboard giants, such as Liszt and Rachmaninoff. In both cases, Grimaud finds that Bach's message speaks with a penetrating voice.

(This is a rebroadcast from February 17, 2009)

Bach is the Bible. That's what many composers and musicians believe, including French pianist Helene Grimaud. She's been playing Bach every day since she was a child, yet she's never recorded his music, until now.

Helene Grimaud explains her intentions behind this new release, simply titled, "Bach," in this way:

"The idea was to explore the reason why this composer seems to have such universal appeal on people, and why people seem to react so strongly to the music, and get to the bottom of what makes the music not only immortal but also has this grace in traveling through time, but through transcriptions and adaptations."

"He's probably the only composer who gracefully survives all sorts of manipulations," she said.

Her idea from the beginning was to bring together pure Bach with transcriptions of his works. Her instrument of choice is a Steinway piano, and her starting point is Bach's "The Well-Tempered Clavier," which she pairs with other Bach works as filtered through the eyes of three 19th and 20th century pianist/composers: Liszt, Busoni and Rachmaninoff.

Grimaud made an intriguing discovery as she played Bach's original preludes and fugues back-to-back with the later transcriptions.

"What I found interesting when I was recording the program, when I was listening back, I expected the transcriptions to sound totally massive next to the preludes and fugues, and I discovered it wasn't so," she said.

"If I hear the A minor prelude and fugue next to the Liszt transcription of the organ prelude and fugue, I'm just amazed, because I find the impact of that prelude and fugue just as strong as that of the piece of a larger scope."

Helene Grimaud has been playing Bach's Fugue in C sharp minor since she was 12 years old. This fugue mushrooms into a great crescendo.

Withdrawing from the crescendo at the very end can be a powerful tool, as Beethoven demonstrated when he played this work. Grimaud takes a similar approach, gently closing this fugue with a delicate touch on the keyboard.

Bach's Chaconne, in a reworking by Busoni, started out as the focal point for this recording. It's a work Helene Grimaud knows well.

"The Chaconne I have lived with for ages. It is one of the most impressive, touching, a piece of awe-inspiring proportions that he ever wrote. It's really a dance of life and death," she said. "I had many different phases with the piece. As a young person I was reveling in the instrumental aspects of it. But later on, I became more interested in staying on a more austere path of phrasing, and tempo relationships."

"The inner heartbeat of the piece should remain the same in all variations. It makes for interesting contrasts and dramatic tension, to also work together with the Busoni indications which are much more disheveled in a way."

Grimaud describes each variation as resembling light seen through a different stained glass window. When she plays it she feels as if she's dancing with her own shadow. And she adds, the ending sounds like a new beginning.

"When the theme returns at the end of the Chaconne, it's a fascinating conclusion because it doesn't really conclude anything. It seems as if it's a reaffirmation of life, and possibilities of a higher level of awareness and enlightenment through love, through acceptance," she said. "It's quite a miraculous healing. But of course the piece is an emotional event, it was for Bach in the beginning, and for any violinist or any pianist as well."

On her new recording, Helene Grimaud confronts Bach head on, because that's what the composer would expect.

"For all of the perfection in his music, it becomes poetry actually, it's not about mathematical notions or that every note is there for a reason. It's really more about the fact that the music is embracing you, penetrating you and uplifting you to other levels," she said.

The emotional and technical power of Bach makes this recording a wonderful companion, whether you want to listen in complete solitude, or in good company.

Helene Grimaud plays with intense thoughtfulness whether she's playing Bach, or transcriptions by those who admired him. She is a poet at the piano who proves that the music of this composer travels gracefully through time.