helene grimaud at elbphilharmonie hamburg

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor K466 (1785)
Symphony No. 40 in G minor K550 (1788)
Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
Piano Concerto in A minor Op. 54 (1845)
Valentin Silvestrov (b. 1937)
The Messenger for piano (or synthesizer) and strings (1996)
Hélène Grimaud (piano)
Camerata Salzburg/Giovanni Guzzo
rec. live, March 2022, Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg, Germany
C Major 764908 DVD [104]

The syncopated figure that opens Mozart’s D minor concerto gives the music a disquieting feel. I wondered how the orchestra, directed from the leader’s desk, would cope with this constant, off the beat motif. I needn’t have worried: the notes are detached and precise, the playing notable for its sharp accents and dramatic expressivity. Hélène Grimaud plays her opening phrases with great poise, and when virtuosity is required later she does not shy away. Her playing is intense and dramatic where required, with fearless crossing of hands in the turbulent passage in the second movement. The two cadenzas – she chooses those by Beethoven – are stupendous. The lovely slow movement Romance is exquisitely played, and the orchestra provides a richly sonorous accompaniment. There is a fair amount of expressive input, here and elsewhere, very much a Grimaud trademark. It never jars, however, and is perfectly matched by the orchestra. She launches the finale without a break. It is fast, brilliant, and lively, but far from gay, until, that is, a short melodic motif is brought back into the major key and transformed into something playful and mischievous to bring the concerto to a brilliant close.

The timpanist plays with wooden sticks and the trumpets are valveless, to be expected in Mozart, but in Grieg too? Hélène Grimaud plays on a full concert Steinway, and although there is clearly plenty of contact between the orchestral players and Giovanni Guzzo, it is clear that Grimaud is the principal. Here, in fact, is a performance that demonstrates and celebrates the extraordinary ability of fine musicians to play together, communicating by careful listening and anticipation in music making that feels spontaneous although, no doubt, intensively prepared. And what a performance we get from Grimaud! To begin at the end, the finale is played with stunning energy and drive, leading to a closing passage as exciting as you are likely to hear anywhere. Live music making like this envelops the listeners and takes them prisoner. The ovation that greets the final notes, with much of the audience standing, is no surprise at all. Grimaud’s view of the work is a romantic one, with a fair amount of expressive liberty, though the orchestra is never wrong-footed. Her playing is also notable for its skilful grading of dynamics, with quiet playing of great delicacy and steely mastery in the more virtuoso passages. The exchanges between the soloist and the orchestra in the Intermezzo second movement are delicious, and the four cellos give us a beautiful contrasting lyrical passage. There might be a little merit in the argument that the orchestra is too small in number for this work. The sound in quieter passages is one of extreme richness, so no problem there. But in some of the stormier sections the piano dominates and important orchestral detail is occasionally hidden. The scampering passage a couple of minutes into the finale is one example of this. The recording is very fine overall, however, and the problem of balance is more evident when you stop watching – the soloist especially – and listen with your eyes closed. You will not want to do this very often, though, as the film is a visual treat, with views of the hall –a surprising number of empty seats! – and most members of the audience wearing masks, a sobering reminder of an extraordinary time.

Between the two concertos we are treated to a superb performance of Mozart’s 40th symphony. We can observe Guzzo more closely now, whose gestures are clear and economical, and certainly do not constitute, as they so easily could, a distraction to the audience. We notice a similar interpretive approach to that of the concertos, more noticeable because it is not instigated by the soloist. A short phrase might sport a diminuendo, another a crescendo, and there are pauses where we don’t always expect them; but again they have a natural feel and seem to grow out the music. The other notable feature of the playing is wide dynamic contrasts, the soft playing sometimes little short of a surprising pianissimo. This is a very muscular reading. The andante second movement is played at a flowing tempo that, in earlier times, might have been adopted for the minuet. This draws attention to the skill with which these players consistently manage to place the ubiquitous chirruping figure precisely on the beat. The third movement, in a rapid one-in-a bar, is played with considerable emphasis and with significant pauses before and after the trio section. The slightly uncompromising playing is carried over into the blistering finale. Manipulation of dynamics at the very outset contributes to the sense of drama, as does the sight of the double bass players heroically chasing the cellos in their shared lines. And let us note here the magnificent wind playing throughout the programme, as well as the glances and smiles among the musicians that witness their sheer pleasure in playing together.

The programme closes with The Messenger by a composer whose music Grimaud has performed and recorded widely, the Ukrainian Valentin Silvestrov. If this was presented as an encore it was a surprising choice – though Hélène Grimaud has a gift for surprises. First, most encores after a concerto feature the soloist alone, whereas this work, though it exists also in a version for solo piano, is accompanied by the strings. Second, this is no soloist’s showpiece: the piano’s role is simply as a member of the ensemble, its music confined to short interventions that frequently double other instruments. The music is tonal with references to older composers, to Mozart in particular. It is slow and contemplative, and though the final bars are hardly conclusive, the work ends this superb recorded concert in an atmosphere of the utmost peace and calm.

William Hedley

Previous review (Blu-ray): Roy Westbrook (January 2024)

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Video details
Video Director: Alexander Radulescu
Mastered from an HD source
Picture format: NTSC/16:9
Sound format: PCM Stereo/DTS 5.1