Interview: Helene Grimaud

Hélène Grimaud is a pianist known for her infatuation with the Romantic era and her penchant for playing by her own rules. Yet there’s more to her than meets the eye, as Suhip Tuncer Soyer discovers
Helene Grimaud
By Time Out Istanbul editors |

Imagine a graceful woman whose age you’d struggle to guess as you peer into her blue eyes… and now imagine that same woman nonchalantly saying, “Sorry about the smell of blood, I just came back from feeding my wolves” as she sits to speak with you. That woman is Hélène Grimaud, one of the most distinctive and talented pianists of our time. There are two passions at the core of Grimaud’s life: the first, as you might imagine, is her immense love of the piano, and the second is her unconventional relationship with wolves. She’s even established the Wolf Conservation Center in Westchester County, New York.

One might take a superficial point of view in referring to Grimaud’s connection with wolves as a modern eccentricity, similar to those who keep iguanas as pets. Yet when you consider the subtle connection between the wildest and most untamable members of nature and the Romantic epithet often assigned to Grimaud, you’ll see just how meaningful her relationship with the wolves is. We’re talking about a species that doesn’t follow a set path, with each herd living by its own set of rules. Organic vs. mechanic, emotional vs. intellectual, rural vs. urban – in other words, all of the essential oppositional stances of Romanticism. When we take this view, it’s easier to see how Grimaud is an impeccable performer of Brahms and Chopin, or how she plays the piano listening not to any rules but to the infallible voice within.

Some pianists have a distinctive sense of internal timing, and all of the works they perform somehow conform to this inner clock. Grimaud is among the modern archetypes of these exceptional artists. She embarked on her professional career at the age of 16 as a student at the Conservatoire de Paris, when she won the 1st Prize at the Conservatory and the Grand Prix du Disque of the Académie Charles Cros for her performance of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Sonata No. 2, considered a litmus test for the piano. Yet despite being regarded as a musical prodigy, Grimaud’s unique inner clock and peculiar tempo led her to feel overwhelmed in a classical music scene dominated by technique and tradition. The person who rescued Grimaud from her predicament was Argentinean pianist Martha Argerich. Thanks to Argerich’s encouragement, Grimaud was able to perform without confining herself to a specific style. She went on to receive praise from composer Arvo Pärt, who chose Grimaud to play the piano solo on Credo.

Throughout her music career – two-thirds of which she spent onstage – Grimaud has primarily chosen to perform works by Romantic composers like Brahms, Liszt and Chopin. She’s also admitted to putting the works of composers like Bach and Mozart through the filter of Romanticism when performing them. This is particularly true in the case of Brahms, whose compositions she plays as if she’s rewriting them. Just as we could easily imagine Glenn Gould pacing up and down a room yelling, “I am Bach,” so, too, could we describe Grimaud’s relationship with Brahms. This intense connection to works performed is perhaps why Grimaud is often compared to Gould despite their vastly different repertoires.

Although Grimaud is best known for her solo concerts, she’s always been receptive to different modes of performance, be it recitals, concertos, philharmonic orchestras or chamber music. Each performance is a process of re-creation for her, and she’s stated time and again that she prefers being onstage to being in the studio. For her Istanbul performance, Grimaud is joined by the Basel Chamber Orchestra celebrated for its renditions of Beethoven’s works. With a program that includes Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Mozart and Bach, the concert is worth seeing if only to hear Grimaud’s flawless performance of Bach’s outstanding Harpsichord Concerto No. 1 in D minor, BWV 1052.

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