Hélène Grimaud weaves a musical tapestry of piano textures!

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Pianist Hélène Grimaud; photo credit: helenegrimaud.com

Review by David Richards
Toronto ON March 9th 2020

The remarkable French pianist, Hélène Grimaud, came to Toronto on the International Day for Women to present a solo recital at Koerner Hall. It was her third appearance since the Hall opened eleven years ago, this time to perform a collection of small-scale pieces found on her 2018 album, Memory, as well as the contrasting music of Robert Schumann’s Kreisleriana. The sell-out audience speaks to her international reputation as one of the leading pianists of her generation.


The concert opened in complete darkness save for three soft spots above the piano shining down on the artist. The unusual effect was to quiet the audience and prepare it for the delicate first notes and to let the audience know that no one needed to be reading a program in this concert.

Grimaud performed the entire first half of the program without a break, sliding seamlessly between Debussy, Chopin, Satie and Valentin Silvestrov. Many of the selections were familiar to amateur pianists. It wasn’t about the thrill of hearing the acrobatics of a virtuoso; instead it was about weaving a sound tapestry of both familiar and unfamiliar music, about stirring memories, and about creating a dream-like space where the delicious textures  could enwrap one’s being.

I was transfixed throughout the entire first half of the concert. It opened with Valentin Sylvestrov’s Bagatelle I: op. 173, a piece that begins with a delicate melody that Grimaud used to introduce her theme of nostalgia. The music seemed to tell a story. It took me away to a space where I was learning a new piano piece as a youngster. The program continued with atmospheric selections: Debussy’s Arabesque No. 1, another Bagatelle by Sylvestrov, Satie’s Gnossiennes No. 1 and 4, more Debussy and three of Chopin’s best-known pieces, Nocturne in E Minor, Op. 72, no. 1, Mazurka in A Minor, Op 17. no. 4 and Waltz in A Minor, op. 34. no. 2. She then added Debussy’s famous Clair de lune and Rêverie, before concluding with Erik Satie’s “Passe” from Danses de travers from Pièces froides.

The second half let go of the reigns of nostalgia and delved into the bi-polar world of Robert Schumann with his Kreisleriana. With references to his love, Clara Wieck, whom he was soon to marry, the music, nevertheless depicts Hoffman’s fictional mad-genius musician Kreisler with scenes of rage and contrasting tenderness. Grimaud changed pianos for this half of the concert, preferring the New York Steinway to the Hamburg model she used for the delicacy of its tone in the first half. The New York model provided the thunderous bass and the thick textures, perfect for the agitated state of mind of Kreisler (and himself).

This was a stirring virtuosic performance that presented a very different Grimaud. Here she was full of passion and emotionally charged energy. Her Schumann holds nothing back. She communicates the depth of his disturbing personality. She is right at home with Schumann’s music. It is by no coincidence that both his Fantasiestücke and his Piano Concerto are part of her current repertoire. Grimaud finished the program with two encores: Rachmaninoff Études Tableaux Op. 33 No. 2 and Op. 33 No.8.

For a glimpse into yesterday’s first half, Grimaud’s Deutsche Grammophon recording Memory is available digitally as is her recently released album entitled Essentials.

The Koerner Hall Series continues with violinist Pamela Frank and pianist Emmanuel Ax performing a program of Mozart and Beethoven on Friday, April 3rd 2020 at 8pm. The concert is part of the Royal Conservatory’s two-year festival of the works of Ludwig van Beethoven on his 250th birthday.