New Classical Tracks: Helene Grimaud and the Brahms Piano Concertos

by Julie Amacher
November 13, 2013

Listen New Classical Tracks: Helene Grimaud and the Brahms Piano Concertos

According to pianist Hélène Grimaud, people have strong opinions about the Brahms Piano Concertos.

"You have people who are absolutely hardcore fans of number one or number two. And it seems to be very hard for people to change their minds about that or come to embrace the other concerto with the same passion, probably to do with the fact that they are two very different animals."

Download Brahms: Piano Concerto #1 In D Minor, Op. 15 - 3. Rondo

Grimaud recently recorded both of Brahms' piano concertos with conductor Andris Nelsons; the Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor was recorded live with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra at Munich's Herkulessaal, and the Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major features Grimaud with the Vienna Philharmonic in Vienna's Musikverein, making this her first recording with the Vienna Philharmonic.

She says the concept was carefully thought through. "This idea of two great orchestras, two great musical cities and two great concert halls, not to be underestimated, especially in the case of the Musikverein in Vienna — we really felt that those added to the sense of creative dialog."

There was a special sense of unity in both performances that made these concerts very memorable.

"It was this sense of shared inspiration in this desire which I very much believe lies at the heart of Brahms' music, of his incredible humanity. And even beyond that I think it's also perhaps the highest aspiration of music itself — to touch the heart of the listeners and to move them to dialogues with themselves. And it's something that I think we felt very strongly we were doing — as one being, with one breath. That's really a magical phenomenon when it takes place."

These two concertos are the Mount Everest of the Romantic piano repertoire — both are more than 50 minutes in length. "But what really I find more taxing is this emotional responsibility and the incredible range and density that is required, both intellectually and emotionally, when performing these two works," Grimaud explains.

Grimaud has always loved the first piano concerto, and this is the second time she's recorded it. "I was somehow transfixed by the music when I first heard it," says Grimaud. "There was something so profoundly affecting about this incredible drama of life and it was a sort of instant recognition. It's like my entire being was, you know, vibrating with the music and something very, very strong."

"The entire development of that first movement is just life-altering, time-altering. I mean, this is something so magical about Brahms' music, too. Have you noticed how in the fast tempi, the music is never really fast and in the slow tempi, it's never really slow, either? Something to do with the polyphonic texture of the music which makes it that it alters time, really. And that's a very amazing phenomenon. It's totally magical, that ability to suspend time in that way.

"And of course the entire second movement is just transcendent. So you just have to be prepared for one of the most incredible journeys of your existence during these 50 minutes."

Brahms composed his second piano concerto in Vienna. Grimaud says this work is more Viennese, so performing it in Vienna's legendary Musikverein was a perfect fit. "It has a special kind of refinement, poetry, color to the sound, a special kind of charm, too. Definitely less raw and primal than the d minor, that's for sure."

Unlike the composer's first concerto, Grimaud has spent several years learning to love the piano concerto No. 2. When she first decided to learn the work a few years ago, she says it was for all the wrong reasons.

"It was more what I call a concept decision. I was thinking, well, with the relationship I have with this composer, the fact that I play nearly everything that he's written for the piano, not only solo pieces but chamber pieces as well, I cannot not play the second concerto. That was just unthinkable. So I thought, 'Well, let's just do it.' The decision didn't come from the right place. It wasn't something which started resonating in my heart or in my soul; it was much too intellectually driven. And so needless to say it became a self-fulfilling prophecy that I could not relate to the second one as strongly as I would have hoped for.

"But I wasn't happy with that. I have to tell you, I felt pretty much unfulfilled. It was sort of a cloud in the back of my consciousness. And then in 2011 when the piece manifested itself in this way, finally, the right way, where it started to, as I've often described it, knock on the door from the inside — then I knew, OK, this is the real beginning."

Johannes Brahms has created a special journey in these two piano concertos. As you listen, you may realize you've lost all track of time.

"And that's so rare, because as human beings, first of all, we forget to be human beings. We are mostly human doings, all the time. And so we are rarely totally one with what we do because we tend to multi-task and parallel-think and parallel-act which is, I think, ultimately actually quite unhealthy. And those moments where all of this disappears and you're just one with yourself and the moment, totally aligned — those moments are very rare and very precious."

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