Hélène Grimaud

Photo by Mat Hennek / DG

Photo by Mat Hennek / DG

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Born in Aix-en-Provence, Hélène Grimaud caught the attention of the music world when at the age of fifteen, her recording of Rachmaninoff's Piano Sonata No. 2 (Op. 36) and the Études-tableaux (Op. 33) won France's Grand Prix du disque. An exclusive Deutsche Grammophon artist since 2002, she is a wildlife conservationist, profiled in The New Yorker in 2011. Below is the transcript of our January 29, 2014 conversation with the pianist Hélène Grimaud.

EH: You studied with two wonderful teachers in France. Not much is known about the Chilean Pierre Barbizet, who captured First Prize at the Conservatoire de Paris (1944). What do you remember about the man, and what were his major contributions to your musical development ?

Grimaud: I remember the very first time playing for him: his message, even then, opened up many perspectives. Almost all of a sudden, I was hearing things that I hadn’t been hearing in three years of lessons (laughs). I don’t even know how to justify it, but he was one of the few people who had the gift of imparting knowledge. He said some things that were pivotal moments for me, and there was something very evocative about his teaching. He was able to bring the very best out of his students, allowing their gifts to fully blossom. Like everything else, you can’t really teach that. He was a person who was incredibly cultivated.

Pianistically, he was able to speak about the production of sound on every level - from the abdominal region and the lower back, through to the articulation of the wrist and the fingers. Some of his teachings were very poetic and stimulating, and he would often use imagery to express a musical emotion in a more convincing, more tangible way. He was a stickler for being faithful to the text, which he saw as sacred, and he only had to sit at the piano and play for a few minutes to widen your horizons.

EH: I've heard that you’re a proponent of mental practice: at what age did you begin thinking of the problem of piano technique, to understand exactly what it was you that were doing ?

Grimaud: I must have been around eleven or so, the very first time. I would say it was a two-step process of discovery, or as we would say in French, une prise de conscience, where we start to move from a very intuitive level, where things simply feel right, to something that is more analytical, to understand the different components, etc. I was just lucky to have great teachers from the start, and one of them was Barbizet.

The second step was probably when I was fifteen or so, preparing for a competition. I discovered mental practice and the power of running through a piece in your mind. It’s a great tool not only for the purposes of memory and concentration, but for the understanding of the relationship between the instrument and the sound. There’s always the risk of going on auto-pilot, which is what happens when you spend too many hours at the instrument. Another danger is when you push forward or too hard, and you lose that crucial awareness of every gesture, how it all connects to your mind, your heart, your instincts, your joints, and everything involved in the production of the sound. You cannot be totally aware of these things for too long.

EH: Another great teacher of yours, Leon Fleisher, once said, “No performance of a piece of music can ever be as great as the work itself,”. In your opinion, can a great performer ever surpass the vision of the composer ?

Grimaud: No, and my only reaction to that is one full of contradictions (laughs). My belief is that the music is always stronger than the performer: there is always something new, something we learn, whether at a performance or during a rehearsal. This is a fact. At the same time, the piece of music is nothing without the act of interpretation. That is the only way it can live, and it’s a totally abstract thing. Even in the imagination, it’s happening through the filter of the person’s imagination. So music does not live until it’s interpreted - with all of its flaws, mannerisms, etc. It needs to be incarnated to be something. In a way, it’s really a beautiful tradeoff: we have to be at peace with the fact that it can’t be everything, but at the same time, without that, it can’t be anything at all.

EH: In late January, Ivo Pogorelich issued a statement on the passing of conductor Claudio Abbado. You worked with the maestro many times – the last, a recording session and disagreement that made headlines. If you’re comfortable answering, what are your memories and feelings today about Claudio Abbado, the man and the musician ?

Grimaud: I think I was eighteen the very first time I played for Claudio. I played with him later that same year, and we worked together regularly until 2011. Just looking at the number of different concerts we collaborated on, with the different orchestras and repertoire, I can only have loved him. We wouldn’t have collaborated together if that love and respect wasn’t clearly there for many years. Even thinking about the performance, the opening of that Lucerne festival with the Brahms D minor -- why was that scheduled in the first place ? Well, because we had played the Brahms D minor together a year or so earlier, in Caracas, with the Simón Bolívar orchestra.

But even then, it doesn’t mean that people don’t go their separate ways. And, of course, there’s always the syndrome of the parent-child relationship. When someone has known you since you were very young, it doesn’t matter how much more independent, how much older or more mature you get. There is still that element, the dynamic of the relationship that is very hard to successfully transform, and that has nothing to do with the music-making, in the end. When I look back at what we did, and think about all the private moments we shared, of course it’s with a lot of love, tenderness and affection. And that didn’t change at all, even after we parted ways.

EH: Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Wednesday evening, you’ll be performing in San Francisco the same Brahms concerto, a piece that Gould and Bernstein had their own disagreements about in 1962. It was in fact Brahms himself, 155 years ago, who premiered the piece.

Grimaud: As I often say when I hear something like that: what I would give to have been there! (laughs) It’s so interesting, you know, whenever you read the accounts of composers playing their own music, that they had very different priorities than performers. None of them seemed too concerned about the plastic realization of their music. If you read Czerny’s accounts of Beethoven’s performances - just how uneven they were, no pedal at all sometimes, more or less prepared depending on the mood - he played like he was possessed, even if he didn’t play everything correctly.

For me, the Brahms in D minor is one that I’ve felt very strongly about, having known it for over two decades. Nothing that he wrote after allows us to feel that much of himself. It’s the last time he felt so free with his innermost feelings, and there’s something so passionate, a dramatic intensity that runs throughout the piece that is simply irresistible. It really takes you away.

The first movement, for me, is a kind of requiem. Knowing that he began developing the work parallel to his friend, Schumann’s first suicide attempt, you can’t help but feel the element of destiny. At over thirty minutes, it’s somehow too short, and it’s just a real, sweeping force. The second movement, on the other hand, is totally disarming in its tenderness and fervent quality. It’s more religious, mystical in its expression of acceptance, and ultimately, I guess, love. The third movement - I’m usually let down by third movements (laughs) - is absolutely fantastic. For me, it’s the precursor to The Rite of Spring. The earth is coming back to life, there is a vigor to the rhythm and there is vitality within the movement. This is one of those piece where you feel that no note is superfluous. As you can tell, I love the piece very much (laughs).

EH: Many of the great composers of the past advocated the study of art forms outside of music to help with the music making. For you, what is the connection between the arts ? Which ones have influenced your artistry over the years ?

Grimaud: For me, definitely literature, poetry, painting, sculpture, and architecture. We cannot underestimate the power of the different art forms, and the correspondences between them, which are an unending source of inspiration and enrichment. It’s an interesting thing, though. When we work on a piece of music, we’ll often read the biographies of the composer and learn about what was going on historically and artistically. But I believe that the connection to a piece of music is something much more personal and mysterious than all of these bits of information. On one level, it’s of course necessary to know all of these personal details about the composer and their environment; on another, if the piece doesn’t whisper directly into your ear, no amount of biographical information is going to help you.

So often, we hear people say, 'Oh, I don’t know anything about classical music,'. But it’s not about how much you know: it’s about what the music makes you feel, how it affects you on the deepest level. We have to give it a chance. At the same time, it boils down to exposure, and education is the best chance for the survival of the art form. I’m not sure we can explain the importance of it. It might come down to giving it a chance and just experiencing it, feeling it.

EH: A question I ask every pianist – because each one’s hand is so different – which is the most difficult Chopin Etude for yours ?

Grimaud: Ha! I have to think about this one. I learned them all as a child, and I have to think about which one was the toughest one to crack. Maybe Opus 10 No. 8. It might have been because I thought it was too happy and I wasn’t a fan then (laughs). My hands are even smaller now than they were, but I’m going to have to say Opus 10 No. 1. It took a while for me to stretch, mold, and work on endurance for that etude.

EH: Hélène, thank you so much for taking the time. Best of luck in San Francisco this week.

Grimaud: Thank you, Elijah. It was my pleasure!