She could be called a Renaissance woman for our times. Hélène Grimaud is not just a deeply passionate and committed musical artist whose pianistic accomplishments play a central role in her life. She is a woman with multiple talents that extend far beyond the instrument she plays with such poetic expression and peerless technical control. The French artist has established herself as a committed wildlife conservationist, a compassionate human rights activist and as a writer.
Grimaud was born in 1969 in Aix-en-Provence and began her piano studies at the local conservatory with Jacqueline Courtin before going on to work with Pierre Barbizet in Marseille. She was accepted into the Paris Conservatoire at just 13 and won first prize in piano performance a mere three years later. She continued to study with György Sándor and Leon Fleisher until, in 1987, she gave her well-received debut recital in Tokyo. That same year, renowned conductor Daniel Barenboim invited her to perform with the Orchestre de Paris.
This marked the launch of Grimaud’s musical career, characterised ever since by concerts with most of the world’s major orchestras and many celebrated conductors. Her recordings have been critically acclaimed and awarded numerous accolades, among them the Cannes Classical Recording of the Year, Choc du Monde de la musique, Diapason d’or, Grand Prix du disque, Record Academy Prize (Tokyo), Midem Classic Award and the Echo Award.
Between her debut in 1995 with the Berliner Philharmoniker under Claudio Abbado and her first performance with the New York Philharmonic under Kurt Masur in 1999 – just two of many notable musical milestones – Grimaud made a wholly different kind of debut: in upper New York State she established the Wolf Conservation Center.
Her love for the endangered species was sparked by a chance encounter with a wolf in northern Florida; this led to her determination to open an environmental education centre. “To be involved in direct conservation and being able to put animals back where they belong,” she says, “there’s just nothing more fulfilling.” But Grimaud’s engagement doesn’t end there: she is also a member of the organisation Musicians for Human Rights, a worldwide network of musicians and people working in the field of music to promote a culture of human rights and social change.
For most people, establishing and running an environmental organisation or having a flourishing career as a musician would be accomplishment enough. Yet, remarkably, Hélène Grimaud has also found time to pursue writing, publishing three books that have appeared in various languages. Her first, Variations Sauvages, appeared in 2003. It was followed in 2005 by Leçons particulières, and in 2013 by Retour à Salem, both semi-autobiographical novels.
Despite her divided dedication to these multiple passions, it is through Grimaud’s thoughtful and tenderly expressive music-making that she most deeply touches the emotions of audiences. Fortunately, they have been able to enjoy her concerts worldwide, thanks to the extensive tours she undertakes as a soloist and recitalist. She is also an ardent and committed chamber musician who performs frequently at the most prestigious festivals and cultural events with a wide range of musical collaborators, including Sol Gabetta, Thomas Quasthoff, Rolando Villazón, Jan Vogler, Truls Mørk, Clemens Hagen and the Capuçon brothers. Her prodigious contribution to and impact on the world of classical music were recently recognised by the French government when she was admitted into the Ordre National de la Légion d’Honneur (France’s highest decoration) at the rank of Chevalier (Knight). She was presented with the award at a ceremony in Aix-en-Provence on 22 March this year.
Performance highlights of recent years include two collaborations with the Turner Prize-winning artist Douglas Gordon – tears become… streams become…, a large-scale immersive installation at New York’s Park Avenue Armory, and Neck of the Woods, a piece devised for the Manchester International Festival – and her appearance at the opening-night gala of the Philharmonie de Paris. Last season Grimaud appeared with Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra at St Petersburg’s White Nights Festival and at the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden’s Summer Festival, as well as playing Beethoven with the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia under Antonio Pappano and Brahms with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Séguin. She also toured Asia and Europe, and has just completed an international tour with the Australian Youth Orchestra and Manfred Honeck.
In her diary for the 2016/17 season are European appearances with Nézet-Séguin and the Rotterdam Philharmonic; performances of concertos by Bartók, Brahms and Ravel in the US and Australia and recital dates in Germany and Switzerland with cellist Sol Gabetta. In December, she will also perform music from her latest album, Water, in Scottsdale, La Jolla and Baltimore, with further recitals to follow in spring 2017 in Stuttgart, Basel, Nuremberg, Lisbon, Rome, Monte Carlo and Stockholm.
Water, a live recording of the performances from tears become… streams become… was released earlier this year. It brings together works by nine composers: Berio, Takemitsu, Fauré, Ravel, Albéniz, Liszt, Janáček, Debussy, and Nitin Sawhney, who wrote seven short Water Transitions for the album as well as producing it. Water was greeted with critical acclaim, Classicalite calling it “a fascinating intellectual journey” and “an astonishing work of piano majesty that is both thought-provoking and spiritually unsettling”, while Gramophone praised Grimaud’s ability to interpret “a multitude of styles with passionate authority”.
Hélène Grimaud has been an exclusive Deutsche Grammophon artist since 2002, and Water was the follow-up to the September 2013 release of her album of the two Brahms piano concertos, the first concerto with Andris Nelsons conducting the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and the second recorded with the Vienna Philharmonic. Classic FM said: “Hélène Grimaud turns her thrilling, deeply personal brand of music-making to Brahms’s first and second Piano Concertos. Throughout her playing is sensitive, graceful, and commanding without ever feeling forced.” Limelight magazine called it an “utterly remarkable, inspired and inspiring recording”.
Duo, the album she recorded with cellist Sol Gabetta just prior to the Brahms concertos, won the 2013 ECHO Award for “chamber recording of the year”. Previous releases include her readings of Mozart’s Piano Concertos Nos. 19 and 23 on a 2011 disc which also featured a collaboration with singer Mojca Erdmann in the same composer’s Ch’io mi scordi di te?. Grimaud’s 2010 release, the solo recital album Resonances, showcased music by Mozart, Berg, Liszt and Bartók, while her other DG recordings include a selection of Bach’s solo and concerto works, in which she directed the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen from the piano; a Beethoven disc with the Staatskapelle Dresden and Vladimir Jurowski which was chosen as one of history’s greatest classical music albums in the iTunes “Classical Essentials” series; Reflection and Credo (both of which feature a number of thematically linked works); a Chopin and Rachmaninov Sonatas disc; a Bartók CD on which she plays the Third Piano Concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra under Pierre Boulez; and a DVD release of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra under the direction of Claudio Abbado.
Hélène Grimaud is undoubtedly a multi-faceted artist. Her deep dedication to her musical career, both in performances and recordings, is reflected and reciprocally amplified by the scope and depth of her environmental and literary pursuits.