By Truman C. Wang
On April 19, French pianist Hélène Grimaud returned to Disney Hall to play the Three B’s (four to be exact). The hall might be half-filled, but the recital audience, in contrast to last Sunday’s symphony audience, was rapt, sophisticated and well-behaved; I even saw a couple of musical cognoscenti with a score in hand. For each composer, Ms. Grimaud chose a late work: Beethoven’s Op.109, Brahms Op.116 and Op.117 (in a manner of speaking, Brahms’ entire Op.116-119 could be classified as one big set of ‘piano songs’), and the Bach chaconne transcribed for the piano by Busoni. One had the opportunity to appreciate not only the glorious late styles of these composers, but also a newfound seriousness of the pianist who, in her previous appearance on this stage in 2020 (my last live concert before the Covid lockdown), played Schumann and French impressionist miniatures.
In a 1920 essay, Busoni (a fine interpreter of Beethoven’s late sonatas himself) had this to say:
“You might speak of “the divine Rossini.” You can also speak of “the divine Mozart.” But you cannot say “the divine Beethoven.” That does not sound right. You must say “the human Beethoven.” …Beethoven’s heart was great and pure, and it felt for humanity… His proverbial struggles may be nothing else but the difficult endeavor to put human strivings…into musical forms.”
In her performance of the Op.109 Sonata, Grimaud embodied a more romantic, less intellectual approach to late Beethoven than a lot of her peers and predecessors. One would not soon forget her stirring account of the third movement, where the misleading Gesangvoll (songful) designation reached surprising climaxes with the intensity of Isolde’s Liebestod. It was unmistakably human Beethoven, wearing the heart on the sleeve, but always in beautiful, homogeneous sounds in all registers.
In the instrumental songs of Brahms Op.117 Intermezzos and Op.116 Fantasies, Grimaud similarly gave a large-scale reading that seemed to reach beyond the confines of the 88 keys of her Steinway which, incidentally, was a beautiful instrument with a clear, warm and strong timber. The Disney Hall is a good hall with good acoustics, but like most modern concert halls, it has its peculiarities: The piano always sounds cleaner and fuller from the right side of the hall, and somewhat edgy and clattery from the left, where the only advantage is being able to see the hands in action.
Grimaud launched into the Busoni-Bach Chaconne nonstop from the final bars of the Brahms Op.116. The intensity was furious and palpable. And what a chaconne it was! It was as if the Beethovenian human attributes were all magisterially blended together: the charm, passion, caprice, and profundity. Last month, Hilary Hahn played an incomparable Chaconne on solo violin; Hélène Grimaud owns it on the piano.
The intensity extended to the three brilliant encores (same as her 2020 recital): Études-Tableaux, Op. 33, No 2 and No 9 by Rachmaninoff, and Bagatelle II by Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov (b.1937)
Truman C. Wang is Editor-in-Chief of Classical Voice, whose articles have appeared in the Pasadena Star-News, San Gabriel Valley Tribune, other Southern California publications, as well as the Hawaiian Chinese Daily. He studied Integrative Biology and Music at U.C. Berkeley.
For each composer, Ms. Grimaud chose a late work: Beethoven’s Op.109, Brahms Op.116 and Op.117 (in a manner of speaking, Brahms’ entire Op.116-119 could be classified as one big set of ‘piano songs’), and the Bach chaconne transcribed for the piano by Busoni…