Hélène Grimaud, The French Touch

On her latest CD, the French pianist revisits two of the Mozart concertos. We profile this peerless performer.

 

Devoted to Brahms, Chopin, Schumann, Rilke and Van Gogh


The apartment in the hamlet of Weggis at the foot of Mount Rigi looks out over Lake Lucerne and its paddle steamers. It’s here that Hélène Grimaud has lived for the past three years with her partner, the photographer Mat Hennek, and Chico, the German Shepherd, who runs alongside the international concert pianist across the high plains of the nearby Vitznauerstock, Bürgenstock and Pilatus. These are romantic surroundings, worthy of someone devoted to the music of Brahms, Chopin and Schumann, Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and the turbulent landscapes of Van Gogh. “When I came to play at the Lucerne Festival some years ago, I fell in love with this area for its elemental energy and ever-changing skies, and not least for the fact that Rachmaninov lived here”, she tells us.

Those concerned about the departure of ‘her’ wolves needn’t worry: she hasn’t abandoned them, and now divides her time between Switzerland and the Wolf Conservation Center she founded in South Salem to the north of New York in 1997, and opened to the public two years later. “I’ve just created a little space to find a new balance in my life; especially in my artistic life. The time I spent on the center - which now receives 20,000 visitors a year - meant I was giving only recitals, and had no time for concerts with orchestras or chamber music… both of which take you out of a solitary existence and expand your musical experience. It was also in the best interest of the foundation to become more autonomous and develop its own democratic system of management, without losing sight of our original mission of reintroducing threatened species to their natural habitat”.

Hélène Grimaud’s passion for wolves may have contributed a lot to her mainstream media coverage, but she has been on music lovers’ radar for more than 25 years. Soon after taking First Prize at the Paris Conservatoire aged 15, Denon released a CD of her playing Rachmaninov: a very well-received recording that revealed
a character best described as ‘spirited’. No one who hears her play is left in any doubt of her intense personality, which neither success nor fame have weakened in the slightest. On the concert platform, that personality comes through in sparkling expression, energetic style and concentrated musicality.

As a child in Aix-en-Provence, it seems that her parents were driven to distraction by her boundless energy, which was first channelled into tennis and martial arts, before her miraculous discovery (both for herself and her family) of music. To this rebellious tomboy temperament, Hélène brought a depth of analytical intellect that allowed her to take on the most physically-demanding pieces in the repertoire in her own – sometimes surprising or even shocking – way. Her most recent release of the Mozart concertos 19 and 23* once again underlines her individuality, with choices of phrasing, coloration and accentuation that convey the very personal and eminently debatable Grimaud vision of the composer.

 

From Pierre Boulez to Valeri Guerguiev, the world’s greatest living conductors continue to succumb to her charms.

She originally recorded this programme with legendary conductor Claudio Abbado, now 78. But disagreeing with the artistic choices made, Hélène decided instead to release the same programme recorded live in concert with a conductor-less Bavarian Radio Chamber Orchestra.

And the public still clamours to buy her recordings. When asked about the furore sparked by this quarrel, she explains: “The music industry lacks spontaneity; everything is too programmed, leaving fewer and fewer opportunities to respond. I wanted to prove that the opposite was possible and – more importantly – to stand firm on the essential issue of artistic integrity”.

Would her life and career have been so remarkable today if she hadn’t dared to be so determined on every possible occasion? After a concert series in the USA in the early 1990s, she could have returned to France with Daniel Barenboim, but preferred to set up home in northern Florida. It was there one evening that she met Alawa – half wolf, half dog – who came up to her for a stroke. It was music that saved her first, wolves that saved her next, and doctors who came to her aid the third time: after suffering pneumonia and heart problems, she has been receiving treatment for stomach cancer, which is the real reason behind recent concert cancellations that some observers wrongly interpreted as proof of a wayward character. Closely connected to nature since childhood – she once wanted to become a vet – Hélène Grimaud admits that she loves Manhattan, whose compulsive frenzy has converted so many others to big city life.

Recently, she has been back in France at the invitation of the Cité de la Musique, which has given her a free hand to programme her own concerts. “It’s been 25 years since I spent a whole week in Paris. Not being much of a one for shopping, the theatre or restaurants, I didn’t see much during my stay other than the architectural model and site of Jean Nouvel’s future Philharmonie: it looks as if it will be a beautiful venue that should open up some exciting prospects for music in France”. Wild? Well, Hélène Grimaud still has a little wildness about her, but if you come across her deep in the woods or spot her at the lakeside one evening, don’t be too frightened to approach her; she likes people just as much as wolves.

 

* Mozart: Piano Concertos 19 (K.459) & 23 (K.488), by Hélène Grimaud, Radoslaw Szulc, Mojca Erdmann (Deutsche Grammophon).