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Concert review: The Telegraph (UK)

The Telegraph (UK), 19 May 2023

Hélène Grimaud, Barbican Hall ★★★★☆

It’s a gift to a critic when the persona of a performing artist meshes seamlessly with the art; for example, the tragic depth of the pianist who’s experienced life-losses.

There’s a temptation to find a similar congruence in French pianist Hélène Grimaud, when one learns that she’s fascinated by wolves and actually runs a wolf-sanctuary in New York State. One looks for an untamed, wild beauty, and strength rather than finesse.

But Hélène Grimaud always confounds expectations, as we discovered at this Barbican recital. The opening movement of Beethoven’s 30th sonata seemed even more wayward and searching than this very wayward music normally sounds. But having started with diffidence she made the assertive return of the opening seem almost furious. In the final variation movement Beethoven’s heavenly melody unfolded with luxurious pauses over certain notes, as if lost in thought. I prefer an unaffected, simple warmth, but the air of remote inwardness she lent the music was certainly striking.

Then came two of Johannes Brahms’s late sets of piano pieces, sometimes turbulent, sometimes aching with regret, which the composer called “the cradle-songs of my sorrows”.  Again Grimaud refused to let any of the pieces settle comfortably into a single mood. There were constant expressive hiccups in the rhythms, a disquieting pedal-induced haze, and a tiny suggestion of asynchrony between left and right hand. All this suggested unruly feelings that were only just being contained.

They finally broke out in the climax of the recital, Busoni’s titanic transcription of Bach’s famous Chaconne for solo violin. The piece begins in a spirit of contained stony dignity and becomes more and more flamboyantly virtuoso. Grimaud’s imperious ribbons of scales flying to the top of the piano and her steely left-hand octaves were awe-inspiring, as was her ability to make the melody line audible through the tumult. The wolf-loving pianist was finally showing her teeth, and the crowd went wild.

But the two encores that followed were at the opposite pole of quiet simplicity — especially the Bagatelle by the Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov, which was so moving that people were actually humming it as they left the hall. As for Grimaud she sauntered off-stage as elegantly as she had arrived, leaving behind a feeling of total enigma.

Hélène Grimaud’s recent recording of music by Silvestrov Silent Songs is released on DG