Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Brahms, Real and Raw: Hélène Grimaud and SF Symphony Make Magic

With Ms. Grimaud, after the performance.

Hélène Grimaud. Live. Playing Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor with the San Francisco Symphony. I could hardly wait. I had read so much about her, and the title of D.T. Max’s 2011 New Yorker article about the enigmatic French pianist echoed in my head: “Her Way: a pianist of strong opinions.” How would the Brahms unfold?

Max wrote, “Grimaud doesn’t sound like most pianists: she is a rubato artist, a reinventor of phrasings, a taker of chances.”

It was true. As I listened and watched, rapt, I had the feeling that she played in her own world. It was almost solipsistic, except that she absorbed the entire orchestra within her even as she unequivocally led the musicians, pushed them, and melded into them.

She seemed to take the orchestra by surprise from time to time. The sensitive and nimble guest conductor Lionel Bringuier - also French - scrambled a few times to meet her at the end of a phrase that ended with just a tinge more delicious urgency than anticipated, or in the middle of a passage contoured so exquisitely that images of abstract arabesque tendrils unfolded and reached out in a colorful cluster in my mind.

Did I mind these occasional occurrences? From one perspective, it’s not inconceivable to say these were moments of unevenness, of pianist and orchestra not in sync. Not once did I feel this was the case. Not once did I mind. I was on the edge of my seat, fully alert, wondering how the next phrase would come alive.

The effect was that of realness, a rawness, of music played with a deep conviction in the here and now. Every sensation was heightened. Pianist, conductor, orchestra, and this audience member existed only in the present moment. Come what may on this roller coaster, I thought to myself, and I knew for sure it was for sure the most exhilarating journey I’d ever taken with Brahms.

Such was the beauty of Ms. Grimaud’s playing with the musicians of the SF Symphony, and of this particular live performance.

In her hands, the melody of the piano soared into the forefront at the right moments, her trills crystalline. There wasn’t so much of an interplay between pianist and orchestra; despite some of the moments mentioned above, I had the sense that they operated together from the core. The orchestra wouldn’t so much as fall away and announce the pianist suddenly in a solo section; it was a shifting of balance, not unlike the natural ebb and flow of a heated, stimulating conversation.

As befits Brahms, the cadenzas (or solo sections, rather) were not so much virtuosic as deeply felt. With Ms. Grimaud, they were impressive in their depth and expressivity.

Ms. Grimaud was forthright and passionate, her approach at once deeply cerebral and emotional. To me, this embodies the constant push-pull dichotomy and visceral complexity that is Brahms.  

As often happens when I hear Brahms performed live, I was struck by the depth of soul and humanity he possessed. In particular, the Piano Concerto No. 1 was an early work of this scale for the young Brahms. I thought of the attempted suicide and death of his mentor, Robert Schumann, and the ensuing crush of emotions Brahms experienced during the period of composition. 

The evening of the performance, this violent, beautiful crashing of the heart and mind were as palpable as if the man were in the room. Now that I think on it, he was very much present.

I cannot overstate the thrill of having one's program signed by an admired artist!

After the performance, I was thrilled to be able to tell Ms. Grimaud myself just how much I’d looked forward to seeing her live. I mentioned that the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 was the most recent work I’d analyzed for my graduate studies in music, to which she bemusedly replied, “That’s a lot of music to analyze!”

She seemed genuinely grateful for all the compliments she received by well-wishers, and she was very gracious. I confessed to her that I was moved by the way she played “so much from the mind, and the heart.” Her countenance softened as she inclined her head and smiled. “Thank you," she said sincerely. "Thank you so much.”

I melted a little. Then the sparkle returned to her eyes, and her countenance took on that slightly impish quality I’d often seen in photographs. This knowing, mischievous look is even more telling in person. I look forward to the next time I can see and hear Ms. Grimaud work her magic, in her own way.