Thursday, December 21, 2006
MUSIC: Pen and Piano, interview with Helene Grimaud
Down boy. Paul Stump tries to keep his cool while alone with the stupendous Hélène Grimaud as she talks about pianism and penmanship
"It's a shame," sighs Hélène Grimaud, staring out of her hotel window near Brussels Airport. "It was so nice when I left London this morning." Outside the sky is the colour of wet cement.
The pianist isn't staying long - just an afternoon of interviews promoting her new CD of Brahms and Schumann - also cellist Truls Mork, mezzo Anne Sofie von Otter and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen - and her second book, Lecons particulières. Then it's on to Berlin for a week of rehearsals.
Grimaud is sleek, poised, with a piercing grey-eyed gaze and, for her slightness of frame, an incongruously powerful handshake. She's also formidably and ostentatiously clever, something she says got her into trouble as a child. "I was considered a disruptive influence at school," she giggles. "I was always asking too many questions." This was in Aix-en-Provence in the early 1970s. "My parents tried to find a channel for this hyperactivity. Tennis, dancing..."
Hmm. The next Francoise Durr or Sylvie Guillem? No.
"...and finally they got me interested in music. That was when I knew I'd found what i needed. I just had the idea - perhaps subconsciously - that no matter how much I learned about music, I would never stop exploring it."
Her talent led her to the Paris Conservatoire at 13 and she made her first recording at 16. Eventually the Parisian milieu tired her and she moved to Flordia in 1991. She's now based in upstate New York and continues to be one of the world's most in-demand instrumentalists. Her range might seem comparatively restricted - principally core Germanic repergtoire, plus Chopin and Rachmaninov - but that's the way she likes it. "My repertoire changes slowly because it takes me a long time to absorb all the information about a work - its phrasing possibilities, for example - before I feel ready to play it in public."
Recently she's strayed into contemporary music, notably by the Estonian Arvo Pärt and American John Corigliano. "But only because I felt that I'd reached a point in my life where I was ready to air those works before an audience. I dabble a lot in all kinds of music at home, but unless there's something that makes me feel I am ready to do full justice to a work in a hall then I won't do it."
Rachmaninov's discursive and restless Sonata No.2 is on her programme at Bozar this month [gig postponed till March 2006 as it turned out - blogger's note]. She broke through with the original version of the work in 1985 but is now returning to it in its revised 1931 guise. "You have to learn what Rachmaninov changed - the revision is lighter, more personal - and I have spent time trying to figure out how rhe pianist should approach those changes mentally and technically." This fastidious approach is reminiscent of players like Serkin and, more recently, Brendel and Zimerman's endless reworkings of their own favourite pieces. Is it true for her that, in Paul Valéry's words, a true work of art is never finished?
"Absolutely," she laughs, " even my books... they take a long tie because I am never satisfied with them. I'm always editing." Her first, Variations sauvages (2002) appears in English in autumn 2006. It's a loosely autobiographical tale about Grimaud's own discovery of and efforts to assist in the conservation and protection of American wolves (she has a family of them on her Westchester farm). The new volume, Lecons particulières is a more abstruse and ruminative piece, part-novel, part-memoir. It's about an internationally-famous pianist named Hélène who is on a journey of spirital and artistic self-discovery. One German critic summarised it as "a cross between Jack Kerouac's On The Road and Hermann Hesse".
"Oh, that's very flattering," she says. "I read a lot of German literature when I was a child, and I suppose there's got to be an influence there." The motifs of the voyage to enlightenment in nature, religion and art are also clearly discernible in her approach to music. "That's true," she sadmits. "I needed to refocus on music, and writing this book - perhaps paradoxically - helped." She didn't even need to take a break in her career to do so. "It wasn't a problem. Things were going too fast anyway - I was starting to lose sight of ehat I wanted to play music for. Writing my thoughts down seemed to calm things and finally, when I finished, I was able to approach my career with a fresh mental outlook."
Which must help when one is in London for breakfast, Brussels for lunch and Berlin for tea.
This article appeared in edited form in The Bulletin, 1.12.2005