New Classical Tracks: Helene Grimaud - from Mozart to Berg

by Julie Amacher
April 13, 2011

Listen New Classical Tracks: Helene Grimaud - Resonances
Larger view
Helene Grimaud: Resonances (Album art)

The four pieces on Helene Grimaud's new disc, by Mozart, Liszt, Berg, and Bartok, might not seem to have a lot in common. But Grimaud says that there are common threads of history and expressivity that connect them--and shed new light on a program that has special significance for her.

Echoes of the past became a healing force for French pianist Helene Grimaud when she recorded her latest project, titled "Resonances." Last year Grimaud battled a series of dire health issues relating to her diagnosis of stomach cancer, and she cancelled months of appearances. As she returned to performing, working on this project provided her with the energizing force she needed.

Here she features four piano works from three centuries, all coming from central Europe. Finding one word that could describe this musical program was no easy task. Grimaud says the word "resonances" works, because each piece sheds light onto its neighbors, and listeners will hear them in a different way because of the one that comes before or after.

At the center of this new recording is the piano sonata by the early 20th century Viennese composer Alban Berg. Grimaud first encountered this piece at age 11 when she saw it propped up on her teacher's piano. Grimaud was fascinated by its dissonant, foreign sound. She knew this work would be meaningful to her later life, and she was right. In 2009 she rediscovered this sonata in her stack of music. The colorful markings her teacher had made on the score indicating tempo, phrasing and dynamics started to make sense. What's interesting is how often one marking will contradict the previous one, making it that much more challenging to play. "It's a music drama cast in the miniature form of a single-movement sonata," Grimaud explains.

The 19th century Hungarian Franz Liszt was a wizard at playing piano and at composing. The single-movement sonata that he wrote is on a much grander, almost operatic scale. Grimaud says the pianist becomes a stage director throughout this theatrical piece--an artistic challenge she loves. What's most fascinating is how this sonata spans the entire range of human emotions. This work, she says is very primal, it makes you stop and think, as does Helene Grimaud's passionate performance.

Mozart also wrote operatic scenes for his instrument, allowing the piano to sing recitatives and arias. "He extracts everything from the possibilities of the piano," Grimaud explains, much like Liszt and Berg. There's a notion of fate in his intensely dramatic Sonata No. 8 in A minor. A sense of loss also permeates this sonata, which was written shortly after his mother's death. The opening movement offers a commanding start to this vibrant work with its repeated left hand chords and dotted rhythms. The spacious melody in the Andante offers some solace before the turbulent dotted rhythms return in the final presto.

Grimaud closes out this program with music by Bela Bartok. In the last days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Bartok went in search of true folk music, which he saw as a source of hope and comfort. The result was his set of Romanian Folk Dances, which ends Helene Grimaud's recital on a bright, optimistic note.

Just as there's a connection between the pieces on this new recording, Helene Grimaud finds a connection between the piano and her passion as a wolf advocate. "If you want to interact with a wild animal," she explains, "you can only do so on their terms. You need to be 100 percent in the moment physically, emotionally and psychologically. It's very much the same type of discipline and intention that is required to penetrate the music."

On her new recording, "Resonances," Helene Grimaud creates an homage to the independence and diversity of her instrument through her powerful performances of sonatas by Mozart, Alban Berg, Liszt, and Bartok.