By Lenny Cavallaro
Groveland, MA, USA
Excerpt from "Brahms Piano Concerto #1 in D",
The two piano concerti of Johannes Brahms stand as monumental landmarks of the 19th century repertoire. Few pianists are comfortable with these masterpieces, and the feat of recording both invites the daunting comparison to scaling Mt. Everest.
This metaphor brings the impressive accomplishment of Hélène Grimaud into perspective. On September 27th, 2013, Deutsche Grammophon released her recordings of the two Brahms works, and she thus became the first woman this century to record these compositions.
Incredible as it may sound, Grimaud's fall season had scarcely begun. Her remarkable musical achievement was followed by major literary recognition a mere ten days later! The French publisher, Albin Michel, released Grimaud's third book, Retour à Salem.
Alas, I must await the translation of Retour à Salem. However, I had the opportunity to listen to an advance release of the Brahms concerti, which I have now heard several times. These interpretations convey both refreshing energy and immense depth, and I absolutely must preface the following interview with a hearty endorsement.
Hélène Grimaud (credit: Mat Hennek)
THIRSTY: Let me begin by asking you about the first Brahms work, the D minor. You had already recorded this concerto in 1998, and you seem to have been quite overpowered by it at a very early age. As you know, this was a youthful composition, and it evolved rather awkwardly. We invariably interpret works differently over the course of time, so I'm curious to know how this recording contrasts with the earlier rendition, and also, do you think that perhaps – this is an abstract question – your 1998 recording, more youthful though it might have been, may have come somewhat closer to Brahms' initial (and youthful) creative spark?
HÉLÈNE GRIMAUD: Well, it's a little difficult for me to say, as I have not listened to them side by side. Obviously, the notes are the same, but the question arises: are they really different or not? Let me begin by explaining that I was not interested in re-doing it just for the sake of trying something "different." I was motivated to re-record it because of the B-flat Major, the second concerto, and I couldn't conceive of playing and recording the B-flat concerto without returning to and revisiting the D minor and bringing it into direct dialogue with the later work. Such was the motivation behind my new recording. Of course, it is also one of the most important pieces in my existence, and I've been living with it and playing it for many years. By "living with it," I should explain that with classical music, we sometimes put a work down for a year, perhaps a few concert seasons, but although we aren't actually "playing" it, it continues to evolve within us – even when we're not actively engaged in the process of practicing, rehearsing, or performing it.
THIRSTY: It is interesting how the first concerto was so badly received initially. Today, virtually everyone agrees that it's one of the greatest romantic concerti in the repertoire, yet it garnered some absolutely savage vitriol from the pens of the critics when it was debuted.
HÉLÈNE GRIMAUD: I think at the end of the day, those opinions really don't matter. However, I suspect that the critics who first panned it did so because they felt it was such a departure from what people knew the concerto form to be, and also because the piano is such an integral part of the orchestral mass. That concept was really unheard of at the time. Maybe people felt dissatisfied because of that. They couldn't recognize the "solo" role for the instrument, and perhaps they were bothered by the very dense orchestration. In other words, it was not what they expected. That's all I can think of by way of explanation.
THIRSTY: Well, as one of my teachers, Claude Frank once told me, "Critics are the people who feel too little and know too much – but not enough!" Let's just file that little quote away for all the artists who have had problems with critics! The greatness of the work speaks for itself.
You had indicated in another interview (in New Yorker) that the first time you cried deeply was after playing the D minor concerto as a teenager. I should welcome your thoughts on how a performer may – almost instinctively – be able to feel, learn, and perform the music of a given composer. On a far more modest scale, I have felt that phenomenon with Bach, and Claude (Frank) shared with me how he was similarly drawn to Beethoven. What is there about Brahms that so "catches your fancy," since you obviously have a tremendous affinity for this composer, and why do you think it is that some performers simply gravitate to one or two figures like Brahms (or Bach, or Beethoven)?
HÉLÈNE GRIMAUD: I wish I knew. In a way, it's like any relationship. Such natural affinities are sometimes irrational and difficult to justify, even with background information – and that is probably fortunate, since if someone could actually explain and tell us we "speak the language" of a given composer, it would make things rather boring. I can tell you why I love Brahms, but I'm afraid the reasons why I think I so may not necessarily be the reasons why there has been such a strong "relationship." I know that when I was first exposed to his music, I was totally captivated and felt this instant sense of recognition, maybe even familiarity – which was, of course, surprising, given that I had never heard him before. However, it was almost as if Brahms himself was speaking directly to me. Thereafter, I started immersing myself in his music as well as in his biography, and this sensitivity has only intensified ever since.
In the case of Brahms, I think there is a wonderful synthesis between classicism and romanticism, and I love the polyphonic tapestry of his writing. You've probably noticed how his fast tempi are never really fast, and his slow tempi are never really slow, either, due to the texture. I love this very special quality of emotion, which I find so poignant in his music – his ability to capture with incredible clarity in the music those moments of emotional, existential change. To me these are pivotal points, after which life can never be the same. And those are just a few of the reasons why I think I react so strongly to Brahms, but I can't really be sure; it could be something much more abstract, nebulous, and abstruse.
THIRSTY: Well, if it means anything, Claude said pretty much the same thing to me – that it was almost as if the composer (Beethoven) was speaking to him, personally. And I have had much the same experience with Bach. In fact, I've actually had dreams about Bach speaking to me, though unfortunately he spoke German, which I don't understand!
HÉLÈNE GRIMAUD: That's a shame! I should have loved to know what he said to you!
THIRSTY: Sadly, I don't even have the Google translator in my subconscious, but your own linguistic skills appear to have been more than adequate to understand what Brahms was trying to tell you! Nevertheless, while you took to the first concerto so easily, you seem to have been somewhat inhibited by the second back in 2007, although judging by your latest CD, I must state that you now seem just as comfortable and at ease with that work as with the D minor.
HÉLÈNE GRIMAUD: Thank you. I must explain that the original decision to play the B-flat did not come from the heart, the soul, and the guts, as my repertoire choices normally do. It was "intellect-driven." I felt that given the relationship I have with Johannes Brahms, and how I had played nearly every piece he ever wrote for piano – not just the solo works, but the chamber music as well – it was simply unthinkable not to play his second piano concerto. Or, if I may indulge in a double negative here, I couldn't "not play" this work.
Of course, I had never felt nearly as close to that concerto as I had to the D minor, and starting to learn it and perform in that frame of mind – a sort of "concept decision" – certainly didn't help. If anything, it made the experience more of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Accordingly, I performed it and could say, "I did it" – at least to myself – but that was all.
As you know, many performers do not play both concerti. Some play one or the other, and a number don't play either. So, initially I thought, "Maybe I don't have to play both." However, this conclusion left me somehow unfulfilled; I hadn't done what I knew I was capable of doing, and I realized that I had not embraced the piece the way I normally embrace a work when I perform it. I felt critical of several passages. I also had some difficulty getting close to the Finale, which I really thought was superfluous for the longest time . . . so it was just not a "healthy" start. I'm now most grateful that three years later the second concerto finally manifested itself to me the way every other Brahms piece did – something I call "knocking on the door from the inside." I don't know if that makes any sense, but it's just a realization that I am "there" and "it is now time."
We sometimes reconnect with a work, and it's really very mysterious the way that happens. I mean that we may have known some of these compositions even from childhood or adolescence, from having heard them or having practiced them; quite often from having studied them without actually performing them. But suddenly, we reconnect with a piece, often completely by chance, perhaps from hearing it on the radio. And all at once, sometimes without any apparent internal trigger, it's "there." As I said, it's mysterious. With the B-flat, the right time had finally come, and I knew in 2011, "This is now the real beginning of the story!" I'm just so happy that this occurred, because it would have been a dark cloud in the back of my consciousness if I had not resolved my relationship issues with that masterpiece.
THIRSTY: You're also very fortunate that this occurred over all four movements. For example, I fell in love with Beethoven's Op. 106 sonata – the "Hammerclavier" – when I was in my late 20s, and subsequently returned to it (as one inevitably does). Alas, 35 years later, the only movement that had the real "growth," that really "spoke" to me, was the first. Other performers have told me similar stories that invariably come back to the same theme: it's intellect, but not heart and soul.
The first concerto – the D minor – prompts yet another question. I positively must ask you to address the famous Leonard Bernstein question: "In a concerto, who is the boss – the conductor or the soloist?" I am prompted, of course, by the famous problems between Bernstein and Glenn Gould when they performed the D minor. You certainly enjoyed a wonderful collaboration with Andris Nelsons, but more than a little friction with the late Claudio Abbado. What did you think of the outcome between Gould and Bernstein, particularly as it emerged to the consternation of the latter?
HÉLÈNE GRIMAUD: (chuckling) Well, ideally, one shouldn't have to answer the question, or even ask it, because it shouldn't be about the personalities. However, when there is a sharp divergence of opinion, someone has to prevail. It's unfortunate when that sort of situation arises – as it did between Gould and Bernstein – because that's not how one wants to make music, but human nature being what it is, it certainly can happen. This is not the first such case, and it won't be the last of relationships, even long, fruitful collaborations, going awry.
When working with a musical colleague, I am happiest when we don't really have to discuss anything, because we're on the same wavelength and simply feel things the same way. Conversation and discussions can be intellectually entertaining and pleasant, a nice ornamental counterpoint to what goes on, but they have to be harmonious. Of course, sometimes when we start from different planes at the first rehearsal and somehow find common ground, the process can actually bring an extra level of excitement. Perhaps that's the wonderful thing; no two artists are exactly alike, yet we may and certainly should find many different scenarios that result in an artistically fulfilling experience.
Excerpt from "Brahms Piano Concerto #2 in B",
By the way: I am not at all reluctant to talk about Claudio. However, in that case, our problems had very little to do with the music, and instead focused on an arbitrary decision [about which cadenza to use: cf., "Titans Clash over a Mere Cadenza"]. And leaving petty, personal matters aside, when we consider the issue of interpretation, we really shouldn't have terribly many such discussions, because they are superfluous. As we make music together, either we feel one another or we don't – and if we don't, no amount of discussion or explanation is going to suffice.
THIRSTY: Quite true. Now, I'd like to swing away from the concerti to the opposite side of the spectrum. In 1996 you recorded Brahms' late-Opus pieces, the Op. 116 through 119, which form such a stark contrast to the concerti. Many of them are extremely delicate, intimate works, and Clara Schumann (in one of her famous letters to Brahms) referred to Op. 119, Number 1, as "the grey pearl." How did the two compare – recording the concerti on the one hand, and these late-Opus compositions on the other? Aren't they totally different artistic experiences? I mean, Brahms is still Brahms, but –
HÉLÈNE GRIMAUD: He is, and that's what I find so interesting! It's like looking at both photographs – still very much the same man, and the works all convey that characteristic nobility and compassion. Also, we see this burning desire, this element of passion, but also of trouble, which not only never disappeared, but which actually somehow intensified after so many of his frustrations in life. So it's fascinating, because the late-Opus pieces and the concerti are at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of the compositional language, but nevertheless they very much take root in the same being. This is what makes it such an intriguing journey!
(credit: Robert Schultze, Mat Hennek)
THIRSTY: Yes, that's true. And the craftsmanship itself is amazing – for example, the way he can squeeze in a tiny sonata-form even within one of the two-page Op. 117 pieces. As a composer, I am in awe of what Brahms does in these works!
Here's my final question on Brahms: It is said you are able to prepare for a concert without actually practicing – something that makes the rest of us profoundly envious, I can assure you! In this respect, you bear some similarity to Paganini, who engaged in his "silent practicing." He did use his left hand, but never even touched the bow. Tying these two together, we come to Brahms' Op. 35 Variations on a Theme of Paganini. Have you performed them, and if so, are you planning to record them?
HÉLÈNE GRIMAUD: Actually, I haven't yet performed them. I certainly studied and learned them long ago, and I love the whole cycle, so I probably shall at some point.
As for my own "silent" practicing: I'm not sure why it surprises so many people. After all, athletes engage in mental imaging, and it's an important and well-known factor in their preparation. I don't see why it should be any different for us, really. Of course, it's important to feel the keys beneath one's fingers, too, but I simply think there is not quite such a great need for physical reinforcement as people imagine. If one has clear ideas about what one wants to convey, many of them can develop on other planes, not just the physical.
THIRSTY: . . . assuming the connection between the brain and the fingers is valid! I certainly begin to feel the rust in my joints after a couple of days away from the keyboard. You are obviously blessed with a truly great facility, and I hope you appreciate the gift.
HÉLÈNE GRIMAUD: I read about this in the Gieseking book [Piano Technique by Walter Gieseking], which I discovered quite by chance only two or three years after having already found that the process is quite powerful. And it's such an important tool for people who are not always able to have their instrument with them.
THIRSTY: I agree that a fair amount of preparation can indeed take place "between the ears" and away from the keyboard, but –
HÉLÈNE GRIMAUD: Of course, one has to be prepared, and have that level of technical command. And it's not just about performing. One can't simply show up and play a concert without having done any work for two days. The issue still involves "preparation," no matter what form that may take.
THIRSTY: Maybe so, but I must confess I'm still more than a little astounded. If I had to play a concerto tonight without having practiced for the last couple of days, it would be a disaster, but from what you're telling me, if you had learned it well enough and performed it two nights ago, you could probably sit down and play it again. And that, as aforesaid, is truly a marvelous gift, in my opinion!
However, you just mentioned Gieseking's book, and that invites an interesting segue. You're the author now of three books, two of which have been quite successful. One – Variations Sauvages – has been translated into Dutch, German, and Japanese, and also into English as Wild Harmonies (released by Riverhead Books, a Penguin imprint). The second, Leçons particulières, is presumably part novel and part autobiography. In early October, Retour à Salem was released, a work that "takes us into a vertigo of reality and fiction." Could you offer a few thoughts on the most recent publication, which seems to be a fantasy into which you have cast yourself as a character, perhaps somewhat autobiographically?
HÉLÈNE GRIMAUD: Oh, it's definitely a novel – pure fiction. However, let me preface my answer by observing that so many people involved with music – performers, composers, conductors – have felt the need to write, that it's actually very common. Sometimes I think it's not really about what one actually does, but rather about the opportunity to say the same thing in a different way, with different idioms and nuances. One transcribes certain emotions into images, and feelings into words, and I think that is where the need to write arises. For me, it's also because my first companions, even before music, were books. I was exposed to literature and poetry at a much earlier age than to classical music, so that could also have something to do with my own literary endeavors.
Of course, Retour à Salem does allude to South Salem, New York, where I founded the Wolf Conservation Center, but the departure point in the book occurs when "I" discover a manuscript with some engravings by the great artist, Max Klinger, and also some texts, and realizing – after I have already purchased the manuscript – that some of the texts were signed by Karl Würth, one of the aliases used by Johannes Brahms. I have the texts translated (and work on them myself), and soon we are off to pure fantasy, but with a serious message. I've always enjoyed the counterpoint of reality and the more fantastical elements of tale-telling, very much in the tradition of the German romantics, who always looked for this "other" world, the world beyond the world we know (i.e., our immediate universe). This still fascinates me, and it becomes something more when the frontier between the two gets blurred to the extent that we're not entirely sure which is "reality" and which is "fiction."
THIRSTY: Marvelous! And since this last novel clearly involves the wolves and your concerns for the environmental destruction that continues unabated to the present day, it also gives us an opportunity to discuss the Wolf Conservation Center, which indeed started on six acres of land in South Salem.
HÉLÈNE GRIMAUD: The original property was slightly over six acres. Then there was a second parcel of about twelve acres that allowed us to participate in the Species Survival Plan (SSP). Later, we were very fortunate to acquire a third parcel to complete this SSP compound for the Mexican wolf and the red wolf. It's an ongoing story in the sense that we want to keep developing the Center and participating in the Species Survival Plan. All the while, our intention is to reach more and more people, trying to make a difference in the world. This was our idea from the start.
What I love about the organization is – first and foremost – the people, a magnificent group of human beings from all walks of life, who come to pour their expertise and energies into this project. There is something truly special about our "extended family," and I am particularly grateful to all of them, board members, staff, and volunteers, for their dedication. We have been blessed with so many wonderful people, and that is what makes the Wolf Conservation Center so special. Of course, the wolves are really the "ambassadors" who have built that bridge of understanding and concern for their wild counterparts with the public, and the public includes those of all ages, starting with children in the lower elementary school grades, special interest groups, and everything in between.
The Wolf Conservation Center has a two-fold mission. First and most immediate are environmental conservation and education. As I've said many times, I don't think there is any hope for environmental conservation without education. To this day, the greatest threat to wolves (and other predators) is human intolerance. Our other objective is to be directly involved in bringing animals back to their original habitats – for example, with the reintroduction of the red wolf and the Mexican gray wolf, two critically endangered species. I should append that as wolves re-enter an area they once inhabited, the entire ecosystem benefits and becomes healthier. This is very fulfilling for anyone who feels strongly about this issue.
Hélène Grimaud at the Wolf Conservation Center
THIRSTY: I spoke with the late Paul Soffron, who founded Wolf Hollow in Ipswich, Massachusetts, and also painted many of the animals housed there. I always hesitate to use this term, but I sensed a truly spiritual aspect in his love for and involvement with the wolves, and I sense the same spiritual ties in your own commitment to them, dating all the way back to your initial encounter with the animal named Alawa in 1990. There simply seems to be something quite beyond the intellect in your bond, even as there was in your more recent experience with Brahms' second concerto, and it is truly beautiful to behold.
HÉLÈNE GRIMAUD: Thank you very much. I think that in the end, this is part of the motivation for those of us working in the field, and it goes back to another of the basic precepts of the German romantic movement, also: the feeling that all of these things are somehow interconnected and take root in a global intuition, and the awareness that Nature is the ultimate Muse for us all. Thus, it truly does have what is necessarily a spiritual component, however one may use the term (and whether one likes to recognize it as such or not). In this sense, it is about a commitment to something larger than ourselves.
THIRSTY: That's beautiful, and so true. And you are also on the Honorary Board of Musicians for Human Rights. May I trouble you for a few words about your involvement there?
HÉLÈNE GRIMAUD: It's a wonderful organization created by some very inspired and socially responsible colleagues, and I was delighted to accept the position. They do marvelous work using music not only as a symbol, but also as a tool to effect a change. As for my own involvement: While we cannot fight for all of the "good causes" that come to mind, we have a responsibility as artists to make ourselves available, whether to perform (i.e., to raise funds), or simply to bring the music and thus the issues to greater public awareness or, as the website notes, "to illuminate human rights issues and organizations." I am honored to be a part of this group, and I have the greatest respect for the colleague-musicians who founded it.
THIRSTY: With all your talents – superb pianist and acclaimed novelist – do you also compose?
HÉLÈNE GRIMAUD: I wish I did, but I don't seem to have that gene, or virus, within me. Of course, I sometimes improvise, and I certainly enjoy doing so, but as for composing original material, I am afraid that's "not my thing."
THIRSTY: Well, you certainly have enough "things" in enough different walks of life that you needn't worry on that score!
If I may, I should like to turn to something a little more personal. You have sound-color synesthesia, a gift also enjoyed by Sibelius and apparently several other composers (notably Liszt, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Scriabin). In a 2011 interview for New Yorker – and this is what threw me – you explained that this has helped you memorize scores and made the experience of playing the piano "more visceral." Isn't this somewhat different than what might be expected? For example, through studies in educational psychology, we know that music can help people memorize words, but I have never seen evidence that colors actually help people memorize music.
Excerpt from "Brahms Piano Concerto #2 in B",
HÉLÈNE GRIMAUD: I think it's more a matter of how the association has helped "write in stone" what that moment is comprised of. It's almost as though the synesthesia simply makes the musical statement more vivid. In that sense, the mnemonic trace it leaves is going to be more consciously accessible the next time I encounter the music. That said, one shouldn't feel as though he/she is missing out on anything, because synesthesia is just a by-product of an altered sense of perception. When we're exposed to an art form as a visceral as music, the experience may (or may not) result in various unexpected manifestations, including those affecting other senses.
I saw a BBC documentary on synesthesia recently, and it seems to take many forms. It is also not as uncommon as one might suspect. If we were to stop people on the street and query them about whether they have ever associated certain colors with numbers or letters of the alphabet, they might report seemingly "natural" connections that conveniently came to mind, even if they've never thought about it, been aware of it, or considered the question before. In fact, synesthesia may actually be something that can be cultivated.
In my own case, it's not systematic, in that it doesn't arise every time I play, but it's a phenomenon I found very beguiling from the time I first encountered it. It was really quite charming, and I was mesmerized by the experience. Of course, as a child, I didn't really try to understand what synesthesia was or where it came from, let alone what its effects could be. I was just happy to enjoy it for the experience itself. I perceived it as slightly magical.
THIRSTY: Well, music is magical, and art in any form is magical, but you do have something wonderful there. Now, you don't get the synesthetic response every time you hear a given set of tones, but are the corresponding colors always the same when you do see them?
HÉLÈNE GRIMAUD: Yes! The same colors are always connected to a specific tonality. In a sense, this goes back to the baroque idea that every tonality has a different emotional identity, and for me, that's what synesthesia really implies. Every composition will be dominated by its tonality – the key in which it has been set.
THIRSTY: I understand, but what response will someone like you get from an atonal work, or a composition utilizing the 12-tone technique?
HÉLÈNE GRIMAUD: Good question! Sometimes nothing, and generally something much more abstract.
THIRSTY: This is totally beyond my comprehension, as I'm rather non-visual, but it sounds wonderful!
HÉLÈNE GRIMAUD: Thank you.
THIRSTY: Last question: What is next for the pianist, writer, environmentalist, and human rights advocate? Having recorded the Brahms concerti, to what task will you turn next?
HÉLÈNE GRIMAUD: There is a "next" recording project, already under way, and it will have an environmental component. Unfortunately, I am not at liberty to tell you more at this stage, but suffice it to say it's very exciting, and it will involve a pretty unusual collaboration with other artists and producers of music that is not classical.
THIRSTY: Will you be doing more recordings with cellist Sol Gabetta?
HÉLÈNE GRIMAUD: We have a "tour project" set for 2015. I don't know if it will result in another recording, but we're definitely planning a musical reunion.
THIRSTY: I caught the interview with the two of you on Facebook, and it is clear you share an absolutely astounding "chemistry." This reminds me of what you said about working with Nelsons on the Brahms, and your collaboration with certain other musicians. When you played with Gabetta, the music seemed so natural, so uncontrived, so unforced, so effortless –
HÉLÈNE GRIMAUD: Indeed, it was just, "Let's play! Let's make music!"
THIRSTY: . . . and that is just one thing Hélène Grimaud does so extraordinarily well!