As a Nor’easter soaked New York on Tuesday evening, artist Douglas Gordon and pianist Hélène Grimaud literally flooded the Park Avenue Armory with tears become… streams become… Grimaud performed a program of water music for solo piano atop a lake that Gordon created using 122,000 gallons of water. Gordon created a magnificent and meditative space, though, Grimaud’s virtuosic technique was the true spectacle.

Hélène Grimaud in Park Armory © James Ewing
Hélène Grimaud in Park Armory
© James Ewing

Perhaps because sound waves literally flow from artist to audience, water has always been a favorite topic for composers. Countless works inspired by water come to mind when thinking of piano literature, particularly since romantic and impressionistic composers were endlessly fascinated with water in its many forms. Grimaud’s program offered a sophisticated selection of works by Berio, Takemitsu, Fauré, Ravel, Albeniz, Liszt , Janáček and Debussy, all of which explored water themes. Grimaud displayed masterful fluency with each composer’s musical language. Her program was no mere wash of undulating arpeggios and waves of glissandi - each piece sounded utterly individual.

The most interesting work in the 45-minute set was Takemitsu's Rain Tree Sketch II, dedicated to the memory of Olivier Messiaen. Also inspired by Debussy and Cage, Takemitsu’s work combines a variety of modern and post-modern compositional techniques to striking effect. Since Grimaud performed Rain Tree Sketch II directly after Berio’s warm Wasserklavier, the piece seemed particularly chilly and haunting.

Since Grimaud’s originally printed set list included eleven pieces, I am glad that the final, eight-piece program did not omit Albéniz’s Almería from Iberia and Janáček Andante from In the Mists. Though Albéniz is often remembered more for transcriptions of his piano works made for the guitar, his works for the solo piano are just as virtuosic as Liszt’s. Almería, like Les jeux d’eaux, becomes so densely textured that the composer needed three staves to clearly express how as many as five voices should played by only two hands.

Hélène Grimaud © Mat Hennek | DG
Hélène Grimaud
© Mat Hennek | DG

Grimaud was equally impressive in the remaining pieces, each requiring different virtuosic techniques. The devilish hand-crossing in Ravel’s sparklingly frenetic Jeux d’eau proved no difficulty for Grimaud. In Liszt’s intricate Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este, her playing was crystal clear. Debussy’s La cathédrale engloutie, with its quiet postlude, was a fitting end to a literally reflective program.

The watery stage that Gordon created for Grimaud was inspiring, indeed. After the audience was finally seated, water began to seep through the floors of the 55,000-square foot hall. Though some begrudging spouses expressed audible confusion about whether or not the performance had started, others sat fascinated by the water slowly rippling across the floor to create a shallow pond before their eyes.

Park Armory, flooded © James Ewing
Park Armory, flooded
© James Ewing

Grimaud entered in complete darkness towards one of two pianos placed in the space. The keys to the instrument illuminated, and gradually, light emanated from the soundboard to create a golden glow. A second, player-piano, was illuminated from time to time to create the illusion of a double reflection. Throughout the evening, Brian Scott’s lighting effects alternated between simple gradations of light and darkness. At times, he lit the soloist by a single spotlight, emphasizing the introspective, and often isolating feeling one can get when floating, womb-like, in water. At other moments, Scott illuminated more of the space to explore water’s reflective properties and, in turn, the 80-foot-high barrel vaulted roof of the Hall.

With such a theatrical presentation for a piano recital, one might expect the evening to divulge into a superficial spectacle. However, the themes Gordon explored through this installation are more abstract, and visually, the evening was rather simple and elegant. Because of its literal exploration of water and water inspired soundscapes, tears become…streams become was certainly memorable. Ultimately, however, Grimaud’s virtuosity at the keyboard is enough impress, without need for 122,000 gallons of water.

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