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Feature: Princeton Town Topics (US)

Princeton Town Topics (US), 10 May 2023

Hélène Grimaud’s Brahms: Living in the First Person

By Stuart Mitchner

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Musically, it was like the notes had always been part of my nature, the composer’s expressions mirroring the ebb and flow of my own emotions.

—Hélène Grimaud on Brahms

unday, May 7, 2023, began online as Google marked Johannes Brahms’s 190th birthday with a series of “doodles” depicting young handsome Brahms and old bearded Brahms at the keyboard. The smooth male voice delivering the minute and a half commentary sounded almost human until the robot referred to Brahms’s Piano Concerto “No” One in D Minor and Symphony “No” One in C Minor. All it took was the pothole of a period after “No” to make the number a negative, and if Harry Nilsson’s right that “one is the loneliest number you’ll ever do,” we’ve got the makings of an A.I. haiku.

Unlovely Angel

Brahms and His World (Princeton University Press 2009) includes a sketch of the “beautiful youth” who dazzled Robert and Clara Schumann with his pianistic and compositional genius one autumn morning in 1853. As drawn by J.B. Laurens, the angelic profile is hard to match with a friend’s word-picture of the young composer’s “unlovely appearance” at the keyboard: his “short, square figure, the almost straw blond hair, the jutting lower lip that lent the beardless youth a slightly sarcastic expression.” His “entire aspect,” however, was “permeated by strength: the broad lionlike chest, the Herculean shoulders, the mighty head at times tossed back energetically while playing.”

Contrasting Portraits

Referring to the photographs included with her Deutsche Grammophon CD Brahms Concertos (2013), pianist Hélène Grimaud sees “two contrasting portraits: the first, a strikingly handsome young man with a proud blond mane, glistening dark eyes, and the shadow of a shy knowing smile; the second, an older man stuffed into a rumpled suit, a greying beard hiding his features, his eyes downcast in some kind of ambivalent contemplation.” The younger man “radiates intensity,” the older has a “weighty, burdened aura.”

Grimaud sees a similar contrast between the two performances included in the CD, the First Concerto recorded in Munich in April 2012 with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Second in November 2012 with the Vienna Philharmonic, both conducted by Andris Nelsons. Referring to her earliest impression of the piece, she says the D minor “completely captivated me. Spiritual, fervent, romantic, it is a whole universe unto itself, written in what feels like a single burst of passion. Brahms was in his mid-20s when he composed it [1854-58], and the work is very much ‘lived in the first person.’ “ — spoken by a musician who plays, understands, and feels music in the first person. To her “the whole piece is driven by Brahms’s most intimate thoughts and emotions.”

As for the Second Concerto, the B flat major, composed 20 years later, she imagines “a vast, elaborate memoir,” a work “constructed in great arches, not impetuous episodes like the First,” its narrative “one of introspection, its yearnings” like “echoes … buried deep within a mountainous structure.”

Improving on Hollywood

Regarding “the drama of the young Brahms” in the First Concerto, Grimaud sees the opening movement as a portrait of “the tormented life of his friend and champion, Robert Schumann; the second, dedicated to his impossible love, Clara Schumann, is like a prayer” while the third, the Rondo Allegro non troppo, is “a kind of resurrection.”

Grimaud’s insights, expressed both through her thinking and her playing, describe worlds more about Brahms and his relationship with the Schumanns than MGM’s well-meaning biopic Song of Love (1947). While Paul Henreid and Katharine Hepburn do well enough as Robert and Clara, they don’t compel interest the way Robert Walker does as Brahms. Even so, the sense of latent power and hidden depths that Walker impresses on a knowledgeable viewer depends not only on an appreciation of his iconic performance as Bruno, the breezy psychopath in Hitchcock’s Strangers On a Train (1950), but on the story of his life of heartbreak, drinks, drugs, madness, and early death at 31.


Over the years record companies and publicists have understandably made the most of Hélène Grimaud’s beauty, for example her pose on the cover of Brahms Concertos. It’s worth noting, however, that her seductive expression is in close proximity to her tightly clasped hands, poised to spring into action on the keyboard; the image also has slight amusing similarities to the photo of Brahms on the cover of Brahms and his World, wherein his powerful hands are joined beneath his Olympian gaze, an effect somewhat lightened by the human touch of the well-smoked cigar between his fingers.

Brahms For Real

One of the most interesting articles in Brahms and His World is Roger Moseley’s “Brahms as Performer of His Own Music.” As he entered late middle age, Brahms’s playing was “tolerated rather than celebrated.” In 1882, even Clara Schumann remarked in her notebook that he “plays more and more abominably — it’s now nothing but thump, bang, and scrabble.” Yet in November of 1881, Brahms was the soloist for the triumphant premiere performance of the Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra and soon would be, as Schumann later noted, “celebrating such triumphs everywhere as seldom fall to the lot of a composer.”

Even Brahms’s First Concerto, which had been savaged by reviewers 20 years before, was being praised in terms that rated compositional authority above pianistic dexterity: he “played wonderfully, especially with regard to the understanding of the work, since he obviously does not display the qualities of a professional pianist.” It’s refreshing to think that Brahms the composer won the day “in spite of handfuls of wrong notes and a hard touch lacking in force-control.” The audiences felt that they were seeing the composer in action, searching for and finding ideas in the living moment. Who cared if his “clumsy fingers hit the wrong notes”? He was making music happen. And a friend’s leonine notion of the youthful composer was echoed years later when a reviewer remarked on the way he “would lift his hands up high and let them come down on the keys with a force like that of a lion’s paw. It was grand!”

Brahmsian Growlings

According to Moseley, one way Brahms compensated for his failing dexterity was by using his voice. Early on, his playing had been accompanied by “a gentle humming” that in later years became, in composer Ethel Smyth’s words, a “muffled roar, as of Titans stirred to sympathy in the bowels of the earth.” Ferdinand Schumann described “a sort of gasping, grumbling, or snoring that was audible as far back as the tenth row” while Brahms biographer Max Kalbeck heard a “growling, whining, and moaning, which at the height of musical climax changed into a loud howling.”

What a thought — Brahms capping the cadenza at the end of the D minor adagio with a howl.

The Smile

On a piece of scrap paper on my desk, it says “18:42 SMILE!” I jotted that down the day I spent close to a YouTube hour watching, completely fascinated, Hélène Grimaud’s performance of the D Minor Concerto with the Baden-Baden/Freiburg symphony orchestra conducted by Michael Gielen. Grimaud’s smile comes two minutes before the rousing climax of the adagio. This sudden helpless show of delight may signify a sweet spot in the emotional “ebb and flow” between composer and pianist.   

And as you watch that brilliantly filmed video, you’ll see that Grimaud, not unlike Brahms, is mouthing the sounds she’s making, singing silently along, or so it seems. For someone so intensely physically into playing a composer whose notes are part of her nature, she surely knows about his penchant for creative misbehavior at the keyboard, his rough edges, his denial of mere virtuosity. In the liner notes to the anthology Portrait of the Artist, Grimaud describes her “quest for spontaneity,” and her willingness to take risks: “It’s not comfortable, but being comfortable was never the idea. You’re there to generate emotion and to produce something that, ideally, should sound as if it’s being written while you hear it.”

In fact, one critic said of Brahms that he plays as if the pencil were still in his hand (“he draws … in outlines, but in great outlines”). I’m reminded of Flannery O’Connor’s explanation for the extremes in her fiction: “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.

Brahms and Ragtime

In his centennial biography The Unknown Brahms (1933), Robert Haven Schauffler quotes Arthur Abell, an American violinist, who spoke with Brahms a year before he died: “He asked me whether I played the banjo. ‘No,’ I replied. ‘Why?’ ‘Because at [the cellist Julius] Klengel’s I met an American girl who played for me, on that curious instrument, a sort of music which she called Ragtime. Do you know this?’” And Brahms hummed “the well known tune which goes ‘If you refuse me,/Honey, you lose me.’ ‘Well,’ the Master continued, with a far-away look in his eyes, ‘I thought I would use, not the stupid tunes, but the interesting rhythms of this Ragtime. But I do not know whether I shall ever get around to it.’”