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Feature: Bachtrack

Almost a quarter-century ago, a set of photographs showing the pianist Hélène Grimaud cuddling wolves captured hearts and imaginations all over the world. The French musician had just co-founded the Wolf Conservation Center in upstate New York. Today she remains a prominent advocate for the animals, for their crucial environmental role and the importance of protecting them.

The most literary of all composers: Hélène Grimaud on Robert Schumann

By Jessica Duchen, 20 March 2024

Almost a quarter-century ago, a set of photographs showing the pianist Hélène Grimaud cuddling wolves captured hearts and imaginations all over the world. The French musician had just co-founded the Wolf Conservation Center in upstate New York. Today she remains a prominent advocate for the animals, for their crucial environmental role and the importance of protecting them.

Hélène Grimaud

© Mat Hennek | Deutsche Grammophon

You might wonder what that has to do with music, but the answer is: plenty. Grimaud’s environmental interests and literary ones too – she has written three books – are part and parcel of her musical personality. A charismatic and fearless soloist, she can access a special level of free-spirited lyricism, allied to an enviable virtuoso technique and a fresh, questing musical curiosity.

There’s still a strange expectation that French pianists will primarily play French repertoire. It’s long past time to ditch that notion: Grimaud is not the only one whose chief musical passions lie elsewhere. She was born in Aix-en-Provence in 1969, but her roots and her life (her home is now California) are multinational. So too is her repertoire, which ranges from the works of Vladimir Silvestrov, Ukraine’s leading contemporary composer, to the pianistic heartland of German romanticism: Beethoven, Brahms and especially Robert Schumann. 

Some years ago she worked with the film director Benedict Mirow on a documentary, A Letter to Clara, about the relationship between Robert and Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms; her related 2006 CD Reflection was termed by Gramophone as “among the most highly charged of Schumann piano concerto recordings… an exceptional disc”. In the spring she is going on the road with this concerto, partnered by the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jakub Hruša. Starting on 13th April in Germany, the orchestra then continues the tour to Iceland and, after that, across the US, beginning with Carnegie Hall, New York.

Grimaud performs R Schumann’s Sehr langsam from Kreisleriana Op. 16.

Grimaud’s journey into Robert Schumann’s fantastical world began in childhood, she says, “and to this day he remains one of my closest ‘friends’. For me, he is the most literary of all composers. I love the poetic quality in his music and the fact that it always seems to be closely attuned to the spoken language. The music, of course, has its own life and goes way beyond any expressive capabilities of verbal language. 

“To me, this is one of the most extraordinary of all concertos. It’s unique, intuitive and extremely fragile. There’s nothing square or predictable about it. I’ve often said that in an ideal world a concerto should be like chamber music on a large scale. But with Schumann, this is a matter of life or death: if it’s not like chamber music, then it does not work. That is the only way it comes to life. 

“Talk about a challenge! It’s hard enough to achieve with a group of four or five players. But here an entire orchestra needs to breathe and to fluctuate as one, because Schumann’s music has so much ebb and flow. It’s always hard in Schumann to find the thread, the unity, but I really think the difficulty resides in that chamber music aspect. You must react in the moment, which means you have constantly to be listening, taking a phrase from your partners and giving it back.”

The first movement is marked Allegro affettuoso: “I don’t think there’s any other piece of music that so encapsulates the word ‘affettuoso’. This ‘affectionate’ feeling has tremendous momentum and elan. It extends into some deeply tender areas and the very impulsive side of Schumann. The music is incredibly eventful, and to achieve that as one organism with the orchestra takes a special chemistry. You can talk about no two interpretations being the same, and no two nights from the same interpreters being the same; this is greatly magnified in any piece by Schumann, but particularly this concerto. So it’s very, very tricky. 

“The first movement is a world apart; he wrote it about four years earlier than the second and third, and it could stand alone in itself. The second movement and finale have an atmosphere that is picturesque; in the Intermezzo I always picture Robert and Clara taking a walk through the woods, as they often liked to do and where inspiration often seems to come from among German romantic composers. There’s something disarming about these emotions. 

“There is also a tremendous amount of energy and drive in the finale, which has a life of its own, with plenty of agility in the rhythm. Everybody really needs to be on their toes, for example in that dancing element, which involves so much rhythmical trickiness.”

Sehr aufgeregt from Kreisleriana Op. 16.

The concert programme for the tour also includes Brahms’s Symphony no. 3 and the programme is bookended with music by Wagner: the Prelude to Lohengrin and the Tannhäuser Overture. Wagner famously was Brahms’ nemesis, but the two had in common the pervasive influence of Schumann – in Wagner’s case despite the latter being only three years his senior. “I think it’s very inspired programming,” Grimaud comments, “and it’s unusual. I have not previously taken part in a programme where Wagner and Schumann were juxtaposed.” She is quite a Wagner fan herself. “When I was 12, I was working on a transcription of the Parsifal overture, so that probably puts me in the fan category. It is all connected – and no composer would have existed if it weren’t for their predecessors.” 

The tour reunites Grimaud with an orchestra and conductor with whom she feels more than at home. “I’ve had a connection with the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra over three decades. Jakub is a very special colleague and I found him to be wonderful from the first time we made music together. That was the Swedish Radio Orchestra with the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2, a long time ago. I remember thinking that he’s an ‘old soul’. There was something highly unusual about his approach to music for someone of that generation at the time. He was in his twenties, yet he already reminded me of one of the old Kapellmeisters, in the best sense of the word ­– it was something quite otherworldly. This is a musical partnership we have been lucky to enjoy for many years. Every time we our paths cross, it’s a great pleasure.”

Hélène Grimaud

© Mat Hennek | Deutsche Grammophon

There’s one more vital partner in Grimaud’s performances: the right piano. “In an instrument I look for power, sustaining and quality of tone; and it has to be fast, both in its action and its sound production. By ‘power’, I mean its dynamic range, so that there is no limitation of something which plateaus when it reaches a certain level. Also, a concert hall is an instrument in itself. You are performing pieces that were never meant to be heard in a 2000-seat hall and it’s acoustically way beyond what these composers imagined.”

She is one of a select few pianists today who travels with her own instrument whenever possible. It might sound like a logistical nightmare, but she says the reverse is true: “It is a great privilege for me, but it’s also much easier for the presenter. I don’t have to reserve time in the hall the day before to select the piano and work with a local tuner. It removes a lot of issues, especially during a tour when you often arrive on the day of the concert, sometimes in the afternoon, which limits the possibilities, so it’s much more worry-free. And it’s good from the concert organiser’s point of view: the instrument arrives, it gets placed on stage and there’s no need to reinvent the wheel every time.”

Grimaud practices with a wolf cub

© Hélène Grimaud | Wolf Conservation Center

Last but not least, what about the wolves? Grimaud says that although she now lives on the other side of the US, she is still very much part of the sanctuary’s activities. “How could I not be?” she says, with a laugh. As ever, it all goes together.

Hélène Grimaud
 and the Bamberg Symphony are on tour from 16th to 27th April.

This article was sponsored by the Bamberg Symphony.