As drought-stricken California braced for severe cutbacks, so too did Hélène Grimaud experience a bit of a water shortage. This piano recital, originally built around a full-bodied water theme, surprisingly culled several previously selected works (those by Schubert, Liszt, Ravel and Debussy) in exchange for a more vociferous Piano Sonata no. 2 in F sharp minor, Op.2 by Brahms. Nonetheless, the evening was filled with intense artistry that captivated the audience from the moment she laid her hands on the keys.

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

Hélène Grimaud is amazing. Supplementing her profession as successful pianist, her ancillary causes are organic: animal conservationist (founder of the Wolf Conservation Center in upper state New York), human rights activist and writer. Perhaps these ardent beliefs can explain the reason why she possesses such a strong connect with the music she plays.

Delicately pausing to position her hands and center herself into the music, Grimaud quietly paved the way to Berio's opening Wasserklavier with limpid delineation, ending in an ambiguous resolve. The quietude commenced with her progression into Rain Tree Sketch II by Toru Takemitsu that’s eerily reminiscent of The Twilight Zone with its Zen-like abstractions.

But this irenic clause quickly came to a close when Grimaud subtly unveiled the gently rolling Venetian boat characterized in Gabriel Fauré’s 6/8 metered Barcarolle no. 5. The 45 year-old Aix-en-Provence native is known to be gifted with synesthesia: a phenomenon of hearing music which transmogrifies into a vision of color. This sense is particularly heightened as the craft quickly encounters a sudden squall with harsh tempestuousness. We live vicariously through Grimaud’s musical adventure.

Even though “Ondine”, an extraction from the trilogy, Gaspard de la nuit, was sorely missed, Hélène Grimaud retained the effervescent Jeux d’eau, Ravel’s “liquid poetry”, with its shimmering connect, impressive undulations and poignant glissandos. Grimaud’s clairvoyant fashion was unapproachable. The aforementioned composition’s aggressive pacing tended to leave a footprint inside Albéniz’s Almería at the get-go, but Grimaud quickly settled down into a more accommodating stance to accentuate the rhythmic ostinato pulsations. Just as it is difficult to play, it is equally impressive to cogitate… no room was left to question her interpretation.

If there was ever a progenitor to be credited as being the “Fountain of Aqueous Delight”, it would go to Franz Liszt. His foundational pre-eminence was permanent, imposing, descriptive and refreshing. Inside Les Jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este, Grimaud was unflappable when juggling the technical demands placed inside this fantastic œuvre laden with lilting arpeggios and a fluid left-handed melody line. This was truly one of the highlights of the evening.

Despite a predominant moody content, Janáček somehow found an optimistic ray of light upon the conclusion of In the Mists. In this piece Grimaud could be described as playing with indelible dolefulness and unquestionable sadness.

From his first book of préludes, Claude Debussy wrote about the legendary cathedral of Ys and all of its roiling gyrations. The musical text, highly descriptive in content, was visited by Hélène Grimaud with an indelible, animated connect. This ephemeral piece has colorful charm, mystique and elusive qualities which Grimaud accesses with discerning sapience.  

In the second half of this Disney Hall performance, Ms Grimaud’s second half committed to Johannes Brahms’ Second Piano Sonata. The four movement composition contained visions of Grimaud finessing through the sophisticated fire with precision and independent detail. Clearly Hélène Grimaud was in her element, though she appeared to be tiring towards the end, endlessly fine-tuning the height of her chair after each movement. Despite an impassioned annunciation, there was an element of subtle withdrawal from the piece.

***11