Accompanied the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester under the baton of the German violinist, musicologist, stage director and conductor Thomas Hengelbrock, the French classical pianist Hélène Grimaud plays Robert Schumann's Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.54. Recorded at Music and Congress Centre of Lübeck, Germany, on July 7, 2013.
In September 1840 Clara and Robert finally married. After years of producing one masterpiece for solo piano after another (his first twenty-three opus numbers are solo piano works) he turned gloriously to song, and in the space of a single year wrote something like 168 of them. Alongside his composing, he was editor of the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. This didn't bring in much income, and he knew the time had come to prove himself with a big symphonic work. His first success in that field came with his "Spring" Symphony, sketched in just four days and premiered at the Gewandhaus on 31 March 1841 with Mendelssohn conducting.
Just over a month later, he began work on a Phantasy for piano and orchestra, again working with great speed and completing it in ten days. The following week he orchestrated it, and a few months later made some revisions. It was first played through during a rehearsal for his "Spring" Symphony at the Gewandhaus on 13 August 1841. The orchestra's concertmaster, Ferdinand David, conducted, and Clara, two weeks away from giving birth to their first child, was of course at the piano. In her diary she wrote: "I also played the Fantasie in A minor; unfortunately, the performer herself had little pleasure (in the empty auditorium, that is), she heard neither herself nor the orchestra. But I played it twice and found it wonderful! When properly rehearsed, it is certain to give audiences the greatest pleasure. The piano is superbly woven together with the orchestra – you cannot conceive of one without the other".
It seems, however, that nobody much wanted a one-movement work. Despite many attempts, a publisher could not be found and the work was put aside. Another four years passed before Schumann worked on it again. He generally immsersed himself in one genre at a time, and 1842 was his year for chamber music. His Piano Quintet Op.44, with its virtuoso piano part, served as a pseudo-concerto for Clara, still awaiting the real thing. In 1843 Schumann devoted himself to large-scale choral works, and the following year Robert and Clara undertook a five-month tour of Russia. Robert was seriously ill for some time after his return from Russia, and at the end of 1844 they moved to Dresden in order to find more peace and quiet to work.
When Schumann did finally turn his attention to his piano concerto once more, he started by composing the third movement finale, calling it a Rondo. Only after completing that did he write the Intermezzo that connects this with the original first movement (which he then revised). It also seems that the bridge passage connecting the Intermezzo with the Rondo gave him particular trouble (there exist seven different versions). We are all so familiar with this music now that it seems so evident, but it wasn't arrived at easily.
John Worthen in his excellent biography of Schumann notes how ironic it was that Schumann finally gave Clara "her" concerto at a time in her life when she could hardly practise. By now she had three children and knew a fourth was on its way (she was pregnant ten times in fourteen years), and because Robert needed silence to compose she could only practise when he took his afternoon walk. Often she was too exhausted by that time to get much work done, and her performances were not frequent. But finally she had her concerto, and the first performance was given in the Hôtel de Saxe in Dresden on 4 December 1845. Ferdinand Hiller, to whom the concerto is dedicated, conducted the orchestra of the subscription concerts.
The Concerto was a success, as was confirmed by the review in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung: "We all have reason to hold this composition in very high esteem and place it among the best by this composer, primarily because the usual monotony of the genre is happily avoided and the entirely obbligato orchestra part, fashioned with great love and care, is given its full due without leaving the impression of impairing the piano's achievements, and both parts keep up their independence in a beautiful alliance". The second performance (although it is often referred to mistakenly as the premiere) was given in the Leipzig Gewandhaus on New Year's Day 1846. There seems to be some confusion over who conducted: some sources say Mendelssohn, others say Niels Wilhelm Gade, who shared the conductor's duties at the time with his illustrious colleague.
Few pieces attract the attention of the audience so quickly as this Concerto. As Michael Steinberg so vividly writes: "The orchestra fires the starting gun, a single eighth-note [quaver] E, and the piano moves out of the blocks with a powerful cascade of fully voiced chords". The soloist, in fact, hardly stops playing during the entire concerto. The winds are given the initial statement of the opening melody, one in which the "Clara" motif of descending notes – abundantly used throughout Schumann's piano works – is fully apparent. There is no change of tempo marking here, even if the "tradition" is to slow down. The subsequent piano entry of the theme is powerfully expressive but intimate at the same time. The dialogue between piano and orchestra is constant, each taking their turn to be soloist and accompanist. This is most striking in the slower passage, marked Andante espressivo, in the middle of the first movement – a magical moment of repose, where the clarinet and piano are the featured soloists. It is interesting to compare the piano part in the central Più animato with what remains of that early Phantasy in A minor, where the writing is a lot more difficult in the later version. Perhaps Clara complained that it wasn't showy enough? The written-out cadenza is perfectly paced, and gave Clara the chance to shine. It begins with counterpoint, goes through some recitative-like passages, gains huge momentum with a brilliant outburst of chords over descending octaves, and returns passionately to the opening theme. From there the cadenza dissolves into a trill, but ends not with the standard cadence but rather leads directly into the re-entry of the orchestra, now giving us the theme much faster but in hushed tones. The crescendo to the final, uncompromising chords is dramatic to say the least.
Having written the last movement next, it is understandable that Schumann didn't want anything too "meaty" for the "slow" movement, when he finally got round to composing it. After the drama and shifting moods of the first movement, a short Intermezzo seems just the thing. Here, the notes of the first movement's descending motif are turned upside down and now go upwards, but the chamber-music feeling continues and is even amplified. The clarinet again features strongly, but so does the cello section, called upon to give us a "big tune". So often this central section can become distorted, wallowing in sentiment rather than retaining its confidentiality.
The bridge that Schumann finally settled on to link the Intermezzo with the finale returns to the "Clara" motif, first in the major, then in the minor, before bursting into the theme of the Allegro vivace. Here the ascending notes create a sense of unbounded joy. All the passagework in the piano part must sing and be heard. All that scurrying about in different keys during the most difficult moment of the Concerto – where Schumann inserts a prime example of his beloved rhythmic games, terrifying every conductor, even Mendelssohn himself it seems – must sound easy and coherent. And danceable. But what an exhilarating piece of music it is. Clara waited a long time for it, but it was worth it in the end.
Source: Angela Hewitt, 2012 (hyperion-records.co.uk)
Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
♪ Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.54 (1841-1845)
i. Allegro affetuoso
ii. Intermezzo: Andantino grazioso
iii. Allegro vivace
Hélène Grimaud, piano
NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester
Conductor: Thomas Hengelbrock
Music and Congress Centre of Lübeck, July 7, 2013
Renaissance woman Hélène Grimaud is not just a deeply passionate and committed musical artist whose pianistic accomplishments play a central role in her life. She is a woman with multiple talents that extend far beyond the instrument she plays with such poetic expression and peerless technical control. The French artist has established herself as a committed wildlife conservationist, a compassionate human rights activist and as a writer.
Grimaud was born in 1969 in Aix-en-Provence and began her piano studies at the local conservatory with Jacqueline Courtin before going on to work with Pierre Barbizet in Marseille. She was accepted into the Paris Conservatoire at just 13 and won first prize in piano performance a mere three years later. She continued to study with György Sándor and Leon Fleisher until, in 1987, she gave her well-received debut recital in Tokyo. That same year, renowned conductor Daniel Barenboim invited her to perform with the Orchestre de Paris: this marked the launch of Grimaud's musical career, characterised ever since by concerts with most of the world's major orchestras and many celebrated conductors.
Between her debut in 1995 with the Berliner Philharmoniker under Claudio Abbado and her first performance with the New York Philharmonic under Kurt Masur in 1999 – just two of many notable musical milestones – Grimaud made a wholly different kind of debut: in upper New York State she established the Wolf Conservation Center.
Her love for the endangered species was sparked by a chance encounter with a wolf in northern Florida; this led to her determination to open an environmental education centre. "To be involved in direct conservation and being able to put animals back where they belong", she says, "there's just nothing more fulfilling". But Grimaud's engagement doesn't end there: she is also a member of the organisation Musicians for Human Rights, a worldwide network of musicians and people working in the field of music to promote a culture of human rights and social change.
For most people, establishing and running an environmental organisation or having a flourishing career as a musician would be accomplishment enough. Yet, remarkably, Hélène Grimaud has also found time to pursue writing, publishing three books that have appeared in various languages. Her first, Variations Sauvages, appeared in 2003. It was followed in 2005 by Leçons particulières, and in 2013 by Retour à Salem, both semi-autobiographical novels.
Despite her divided dedication to these multiple passions, it is through Grimaud's thoughtful and tenderly expressive music-making that she most deeply touches the emotions of audiences. Fortunately, they have been able to enjoy her concerts worldwide, thanks to the extensive tours she undertakes as a soloist and recitalist. She is also an ardent and committed chamber musician who performs frequently at the most prestigious festivals and cultural events with a wide range of musical collaborators, including Sol Gabetta, Rolando Villazón, Jan Vogler, Truls Mørk, Clemens Hagen and the Capuçon brothers. Her prodigious contribution to and impact on the world of classical music were recognised by the French government when she was admitted into the Ordre National de la Légion d'Honneur (France's highest decoration) at the rank of Chevalier (Knight).
Hélène Grimaud has been an exclusive Deutsche Grammophon artist since 2002. Her recordings have been critically acclaimed and awarded numerous accolades, among them the Cannes Classical Recording of the Year, Choc du Monde de la musique, Diapason d'or, Grand Prix du disque, Record Academy Prize (Tokyo), Midem Classic Award and the Echo Klassik Award.
Her early recordings include Credoand Reflection(both of which feature a number of thematically linked works); a Chopin and Rachmaninov Sonatas disc; a Bartók CD on which she plays the Third Piano Concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra and Pierre Boulez; a Beethoven disc with the Staatskapelle Dresden and Vladimir Jurowski which was chosen as one of history's greatest classical music albums in the iTunes "Classical Essentials" series; a selection of Bach's solo and concerto works, in which she directed the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen from the piano; and a DVD release of Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra and Claudio Abbado.
In 2010 Grimaud recorded the solo recital album Resonances, showcasing music by Mozart, Berg, Liszt and Bartók. This was followed in 2011 by a disc featuring her readings of Mozart's Piano Concertos Nos. 19 and 23 as well as a collaboration with singer Mojca Erdmann in the same composer's Ch'io mi scordi di te?. Her next release, Duo, recorded with cellist Sol Gabetta, won the 2013 Echo Klassik Award for "chamber recording of the year", and her album of the two Brahms piano concertos, the First recorded with Andris Nelsons and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Second with Nelsons and the Vienna Philharmonic, appeared in September 2013.
This was followed by Water (January 2016), a live recording of performances from tears become... streams become..., the critically-acclaimed large-scale immersive installation at New York's Park Avenue Armory created by Turner Prize-winning artist Douglas Gordon in collaboration with Grimaud. Waterfeatures works by nine composers: Berio, Takemitsu, Fauré, Ravel, Albéniz, Liszt, Janáček, Debussy and Nitin Sawhney, who wrote seven short Water Transitionsfor the album as well as producing it. April 2017 then saw the release of Perspectives, a two-disc personal selection of highlights from her DG catalogue, including two "encores" – Brahms's Waltz in A flat and Sgambati's arrangement of Gluck's "Dance of the Blessed Spirits" – previously unreleased on CD/via streaming.
Grimaud's latest album, Memory, was released in September 2018. Exploring music's ability to bring the past back to life, it comprises a selection of evanescent miniatures by Chopin, Debussy, Satie and Valentin Silvestrov which, in the pianist's own words, "conjure atmospheres of fragile reflection, a mirage of what was – or what could have been".
Having opened 2019 by giving a series of performances of the Schumann Piano Concerto with Andris Nelsons and the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester in Leipzig, Hamburg, Paris, Luxembourg, Munich and Vienna, in February she begins a recital tour of Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium featuring repertoire from Memory. Further European dates will follow in May/June. In the meantime, her tour of the US in March/April will focus on performances of Beethoven's Fourth Concerto and Ravel's Concerto in G major at venues including the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and New York's Carnegie Hall.
Highlights of last season include Grimaud's residency with the Gothenburg Symphony; this began with a chamber recital and performances of the Ravel Piano Concerto, which she also played in Zurich and Vienna in January. She performed Beethoven's Piano Concerto No.4 in Leipzig with Lionel Bringuier and the Gewandhausorchester, in Munich with Valery Gergiev and the Munich Philharmonic and on tour in Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Iceland with the Gothenburg Symphony. In addition, she gave performances in Lucerne, Ludwigshafen and Paris of multimedia concert project Woodlands and beyond..., premiered at the Hamburg Elbphilharmonie in April 2017. The project combines piano works by Romantic and Impressionist composers with images from Woodlands, the latest publication by her partner, fine art photographer Mat Hennek.
Hélène Grimaud is undoubtedly a multi-faceted artist. Her deep dedication to her musical career, both in performances and recordings, is reflected and reciprocally amplified by the scope and depth of her environmental, literary and artistic interests.
Source: helenegrimaud.com (2019)
Maurice Ravel: Piano Concerto in G major – Hélène Grimaud, Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, Lionel Bringuier (HD 1080p)
Hélène Grimaud: Water – Nitin Sawhney, Luciano Berio, Toru Takemitsu, Gabriel Fauré, Maurice Ravel, Isaac Albeniz, Franz Liszt, Leoš Janáček, Claude Debussy (Audio video)
A Russian Night: Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov & Stravinsky – Hélène Grimaud, Claudio Abbado (Full HD 1080p)
Hélène Grimaud talks about Claudio Abbado
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Concerto No.23 in A major, ii. Adagio – Hélène Grimaud, Radoslaw Szulc
Robert Schumann: Piano Concerto in A minor – Jan Lisiecki, Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Antonio Pappano
Robert Schumann: Piano Concerto in A minor – Nelson Freire, Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, Claus Peter Flor