Hélène Grimaud reflects on the music she can’t live without

Pianist Hélène Grimaud gives a recital on Feb 4 as part of the Symphony Center Presents Pianos series

Mat Hennek

Hélène Grimaud makes no bones about it.  

Sure, the acclaimed French pianist has performed works by such contemporary composers as John Corigliano, Arvo Pärt and Valentin Silvestrov, but her heart lies with works by past greats like Beethoven, Brahms, Rachmaninov, Ravel and Schumann. 

The reason is simple. She can devote her entire life to that historical repertory and still not learn it all. “As a pianist, it’s one of the problems,” she said. “Too much to do and too little time.” Plus, she makes time for non-musical pursuits as well as being the founder of the Wolf Conservation Center in South Salem, New York, and a serving as a member of Musicians for Human Rights. 

“For me,” she said, “to choose a piece of music to present to the public and to live with over the years, it has to be a piece that I can’t really live without. So, perhaps that’s the determining factor as well.” 

So, it comes as little surprise that Grimaud’s Feb. 4 matinee recital as part of the Symphony Center Presents Piano series features familiar works by the three B’s Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. Well, really four B’s, because the program ends with Ferrucio Busoni’s famed arrangement of J.S. Bach’s Chaconne from the composer’s Violin Partita No. 2, BWV 1004, which is as much about Busoni as it is Bach. 

“For me to choose a piece of music to present to the public and to live with over the years, it has to be a piece that I can’t really live without. So, perhaps that’s the determining factor as well.” — Hélène Grimaud 

The program opens with Beethoven’s Sonata No. 30 in E Major, Op. 109. Grimaud notes that it is the third to the last of the composer’s works in that form, one in which he returns to a smaller scale and more intimate feel following No. 29, the mighty Hammerklavier. “What I really love about it,” the pianist said, “is that it is characterized by a freer and more original approach to the traditional sonata form, the focus being the third movement with a set of variations that interpret its themes in a really wide variety of ways.” That movement links the work to the concluding Chaconne by Bach and arranged by Busoni, which contains a set of more than 60 variations on a bass theme, what Grimaud called an “endless metamorphosis of the original material.” 

Both Beethoven’s sonata and the two sets of solo works by Brahms in the center of the program — the Three Intermezzos, Op. 117, and Seven Fantasies, Op. 116 — are late works in the careers of the two musical giants. The Brahms works are part of the composer’s final foray into composition for solo piano, and she described them as “abstract instrumental songs,” almost like “free jazz.” 

“It’s pure music,” she said. “It’s almost like this stream of consciousness even though the pieces are all very strongly rooted in the A–B–A format, which is typical of the sonata form. What’s also interesting is that they are just as highly concentrated as his greatest, larger works, so they’re just very intense, very poetic and poignant like most of Brahms’ music, and they are really just worlds.” 

According to her, each one of these miniatures grouped as a part of larger sets alters perception. “These pieces are so dense and so deep in their range of emotion,” she said, “that you don’t even realize how short they are but how also strictly structured they are but how much freedom there is in them. So it’s quite a hypnotic experience to play them, and also, for the listener, it’s really an intense, emotional journey.” 

The left hand of pianist Hélène Grimaud

Mat Hennek

Grimaud’s Feb. 4 Chicago appearance is part of a North-American recital tour that begins Jan. 20 in Boston and ends March 9 in Seattle with a few breaks along the way. In all, she will perform 11 concerts with other stops in such cities as Des Moines, Iowa and Toronto. 

Brahms also figured prominently in the pianist’s schedule in October and November when she performed the composer’s Piano Concerto during a European tour with the London Philharmonic and as part of a yearlong residency with the Philharmonie Luxembourg. This group of concerts is part of her third focus on the work during her career. “It’s one of the major pieces of the piano repertoire,” she said, “so, of course, it’s one of these texts that you keep revisiting your entire life long.” 

Grimaud, who was once known as something of an enfant terrible, has settled into middle age at 54, but has not given up her independent spirit or interpretative elan. In an October 2023 BBC Music Magazine review of her most recent recording, an ode to Clara Schumann, critic Michael Church praises her “highly distinctive” piano voice, especially her take on Kreisleriana, Op. 16, by Clara’s famed composer-husband, Robert. 

“Under her hands,” Church writes, “all the pleasures of this portmanteau work emerge vividly: the passion of the opening movement and the breathless eagerness of the second; the dips into deep inwardness and the witty syncopations of the finale, which Grimaud makes deliciously sexy.” 

Grimaud herself sees little change in her approach to music-making, which she describes as “utter dedication,” but she concedes that she, like any artist, is constantly evolving and learning. “I think one can be more effective in the way one works with evolution and progression,” she said, “but the basic premise of staying true to the score and true to one’s self and giving all you have when you walk out there – those principles have not changed.”  

Foregoing the competition route that launches many top pianists, she got her start around age 17 with an acclaimed piano recital in Tokyo in 1987 that was followed that same year by a performance with famed conductor Daniel Barenboim and the Orchestre de Paris. Her career was unfurled, and she became an almost instant star. 

Although the approach has become much more common now, Grimaud was among the pioneering artists to introduce themed or concept albums, with works by a mix of composers that all related in some way. “When I started doing that, there wasn’t even a word for it,” she said. “It wasn’t even called ‘concept.’” She started with such a tack on her second album for the Denon label, a 1987 release that combined works by Chopin, Liszt and Schumann, and never looked back.  

Even if she featured just one composer on some of her later recordings, she never went for what she called an “obvious coupling” of selections. “It was often mixing concertos and solo works and sometimes even chamber music,” she said. “I was always interested in how the juxtaposition of certain pieces, just as you do in a concert program, actually, how that constitutes a journey and every piece sheds a certain light on its neighbor. And those associations I find really interesting.” 

Since 2002, Grimaud has been an exclusive recording artist for Deutsche Grammophon, what she called a “productive partnership with artistic freedom at its core.” On Dec. 9, she took part in a 125th anniversary celebration of the prestigious label with the Philadelphia Orchestra and its music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin.  

Her first release for Deutsche Grammophon was titled Credo and featured works by Beethoven, Corigliano and Pärt. “The simple fact that they decided to do it and weren’t worried: ‘How do we now characterize this? Is it now under Beethoven or Corigliano? Where does this fit?’” she said. “I knew immediately. This is going to be the right home for me for the foreseeable future. And 20 years later it has continued to verify itself.”