Hélène Grimaud, piano (Boston, MA)

NEC's Jordan Hall

French-born pianist Hélène Grimaud enjoys a busy and varied career on the world’s concert stages, as an orchestral soloist, a chamber music partner, and a solo recitalist. Her combination of sheer strength and power, tempered by her interpretive subtlety and technical control, makes her an impressive pianist in any setting. She makes her Boston recital debut with this performance, and previously appeared on the Series in 2006 with Tokyo’s NHK Symphony conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy.  

Grimaud’s performance interests are eclectic, ranging from her acclaimed renditions of Bach (both original and transcribed) and Mozart to the present day, and her programmatic approach is thoughtful and fascinating. Notably, she dedicated an album and a performance tour to piano pieces inspired by water and partnered with artist Douglas Gordon, to present an installation / performance “Tears Become… Streams Become…” on a stage flooded with water at New York’s Park Avenue Armory in 2014. She partnered in early 2023 for a concert with Los Angeles-based chamber music collective Wild Up for a program that paired a Mozart piano concerto with works by Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov, whose works Grimaud has recorded and long championed. 

In addition to her musical activities, Grimaud is the author of a memoir, Wild Harmonies (“Variations Sauvages” in French), that has been translated into several languages, and two semi-autobiographical novels.  

She is an ardent activist for human rights and wildlife conservation and founded the Wolf Conservation Center in Westchester County. The organization educates the public about wolf conservation, and, as part of a federally-accredited program, maintains breeding populations of two critically endangered North American wolf species, the Mexican Gray Wolf and the Red Wolf. 

This performance will also take place in Groton Hill on January 21 at 3:00 PM. 

Program Details

Beethoven's last decade, 1816-1826, was a time of extraordinary originality, idiosyncrasy, and invention without parallel in the career of any other composer. Withdrawn, separated from much of the rest of the musical world by the barrier of his deafness, Beethoven conceived and wrote a body of music without equal, and it sometimes seems even without root in history and tradition, a new music of his own invention. In a period of about six years, from 1816 to 1822, he composed his last five piano sonatas, the Diabelli Variations, and the Missa Solemnis. Music historians sometimes call this period an infertile time in his life, curiously, but solely because he did not compose many works; nevertheless, the compositions of this period have such rich content, such simple grandeur, and, at the same time, such originality, that many other observers wonder how he could have conceived and completed them all in that time. 

The word had circulated in Vienna that Beethoven had written himself out, that similar to Haydn in his old age, he was reduced to making folk song arrangements because he was incapable of doing anything else. When he heard these malicious rumors from a disciple, Beethoven said, “Wait awhile. They’ll soon learn differently.” To be sure, his Op. 108 was a collection of twenty-five Scottish songs, arranged in 1815 and 1816 for a British music publisher, but his last piano sonatas must be counted among his very greatest works. He composed them between 1820 and 1822 (not exactly in a “single breath,” as Beethoven claimed in a letter), while he was also working on the Missa Solemnis

The great tension, density, and weight of Beethoven’s last works puzzled musicians and music-lovers for generations. The technical and interpretative problems they presented to performers were blamed on his loss of hearing, which was thought to have separated him from musical reality. Now we can understand his deafness as a kind of cruel liberation from concern for common practicalities, one that freed his imagination for flight into a new, expressive world. 

Beethoven wrote Sonata No. 30 in 1820; it was published in 1821 with a dedication to nineteen-year-old Maximiliane Brentano, daughter of Beethoven’s friends Franz and Antonie Brentano. “Maxe,” as Beethoven called her, was a gifted young girl for whom he had composed a Trio (WoO 39) when she was only ten. In a letter accompanying an inscribed copy of the sonata he wrote to her, “A dedication!!! [in] the spirit that binds good people together on this earth and that time cannot destroy. This is what I send you now, recalling your childhood and your beloved parents. Remember me often and well.”  

The first two movements of this sonata have original, brief structures derived from the sonata-form principle of dualism: in the first, the materials are in two tempi, a quick and smooth Vivace, ma non troppo alternating with a slow and rhapsodic Adagio espressivo. The latter fades into the rapid Prestissimo second movement, which opens with its two themes presented simultaneously, one in the right hand, the other in the left as its bass. In recapitulation, their positions are inverted. The climax of the sonata is reached in the finale, a movement so great it makes the first two seem like an extended introduction to it. It consists of a theme, Andante molto cantabile ed espressivo, and six variations, which seem to reduce the theme down to its essence. Finally, the theme itself returns at the end.

© Susan Halpern, 2023

Although in his youth Brahms earned his living as a pianist and in later years, he played well enough to get through his own difficult concertos, he played, it was said, like a composer, not like a virtuoso. As a young man, he also wrote big works for the piano, grand sonatas and long sets of variations. Between the unconstrained works of his youth and the more restrained, spare style of his later years, Brahms produced a series of pieces that showed his mastery and control of the keyboard in a disciplined, unemotional way.  

The titles given to all the individual pieces, including the Intermezzi, Op. 117, have no specific meaning, and are, in fact, rather neutral generalized designations, but we may note that Intermezzi generally move at moderate tempos and are shorter pieces; the Rhapsodies are larger, and the Capriccios, whose length fall somewhere in between, are quicker. (In all, Brahms composed eighteen Intermezzi, seven Capriccios, and three Rhapsodies.) The general character of all of them is lyrical, but plentiful contrasts of tonality, texture, rhythm, and form exist; however, Brahms avoided any virtuosic elements.   

After his Piano Concerto No. 2 of 1881, Brahms produced no piano music at all until 1892. That year he reflected that he felt old and thought it time to put his affairs in order. Yet that year, he published twenty short, intimate piano pieces probably based on musical ideas he had been accumulating for a protracted period of time. These four varied sets, Opp. 116 to 119, were the last works he was to write for the piano; they were also among the most impressive works he wrote for that instrument. Nothing binds together the pieces within each opus; the reasons for the final groupings are not known. Only Op. 117, the second of the sets, consists of uniformly titled pieces, all at tempi that are variants of Andante. 

The Intermezzi are deeply personal statements, eloquent soliloquies, much like songs without words, more akin to Brahms’ songs of the 1880s than to his earlier piano music. They share inwardness and a deeply serious mood. A similar basic structure suffices for all of them: each is written in a simple three-part form in which similar opening and closing music surrounds a contrasting middle section.   

The earliest recorded public performance of the Op. 117 group was in London on January 22, 1894, with the pianist Ilona Eibenschütz (1873-1967), who had studied with Clara Schumann for four years. Brahms sent them to Clara Schumann, his close friend, as a peace-offering after a long quarrel they had had about the preparation of the collected edition of the works of her late husband, Robert. Clara seems to have been a little jealous of Eibenschütz because she had had the privilege of being acquainted with this music before Clara herself had experienced it. Perhaps to calm Clara, or else simply out of his habit of belittling his new works, Brahms wrote to Clara that they were “not worth much discussion.” From her letters to Brahms, there is evidence that the pieces were not in the order in which they were later published; some were even in different keys from those in which they are now known. 

Some commentators feel these pieces have no continuity, but others suggest Brahms supplied subtle musical links among the works in motives, textures, and even in the harmony. In texture, all three place their melodic themes within figuration, which is to say in patterns that are ornamental, resulting from the embellishments of the underlying melody, as is done in a variation. Brahms has given each of the three the use of repeated melodic minor thirds. Harmonically, too, the three are connected, perhaps most noticeably, in the third intermezzo’s repeat of the transitional passage from the first Intermezzo, in which it approaches D-flat minor, which is enharmonically the same as C-sharp minor, before the music returns to the tonic. In the final Intermezzo, Brahms repeatedly uses D-sharp (enharmonically E-flat) in the outer sections to reinforce harmonic connections between the otherwise distant keys.  

Brahms referred to No. 1 in E-flat Major, Andante moderato, with its half-buried melody, as “the lullaby of my sorrows.” At the head of the manuscript for this intermezzo, he wrote a pair of lines from an old Scottish folk ballad he found that had been translated into German in a collection by Johann Gottfried von Herder: “Lullaby, my child, sleep softly and well. It grieves me much to see you weep.” The Intermezzo opens tranquilly, but the peacefulness soon passes even before the minor-mode central passage. 

Brahms gave no hint of the background of the other two intermezzi, although commentators frequently conclude that all three sprang from a literary association that Brahms never revealed. No. 2, in B-flat minor and No. 3, in C-sharp minor are both melancholy instrumental songs that may well have sprung from some literary association never revealed. It is conjectured that the first two Intermezzi are settings of the 1-3 and 4-7 stanzas of the “Lullaby,” while for the third Intermezzo, Brahms had in mind the next poem in Herder’s collection, “Oh woe! Oh woe! Deep in the valley.”

No. 2, Intermezzo in B-flat minor, Andante non troppo e con molto espressione, is a melancholy instrumental song.  Texturally, the melody is buried within the figuration; an interweaving of melody and accompaniment dominates. The restless, unstable theme emerges occasionally in this work in the major tonality, yet a lack of definitive key near the end leaves the tonality not quite established.  

No. 3, Intermezzo in C-sharp minor, Grazioso e giocoso, is a lighter-toned piece, with an interesting layout of the voices, so that the theme occurs at first in the middle of the texture, not at its top. Here Brahms uses minor mode outer sections with a major mode middle passage.   

© Susan Halpern, 2023

Brahms performed in the premiere of the Fantasies, Op. 116, on September 19, 1879, in the Russian island port city of Kronstadt.  Hans von Bülow played the whole set on October 29, in Berlin. 

Grouping the entire set under the collective title Fantasies, Op. 116, has an integrity or unity that seems to have been an issue of importance to Brahms. Until a month before publication in 1892, the set consisted of only five rather than seven pieces. At the last moment, Brahms added two more pieces to the set and issued it in two volumes, but critics agree that despite its two-part format, Op. 116 has the strongest claim among Brahms’ late piano collections to be considered a coherent whole. The title does not have any programmatic or affective connotation; it is a neutral, generalized designation.   

The works in the grouping are technically not as demanding as some of his earlier piano pieces, but they require a high level of musicianship. Clara Schumann pointed this out in her diary: “As far as demands on the agility of fingers, the Brahms pieces are, except in a few places, not difficult. But the spiritual technique therein demands a delicate understanding. One must entrust oneself completely to Brahms in order to render these pieces in the way he has imagined them.”   

In this and his other character pieces, Brahms’ focus is of small scope with emphasis on strict compositional procedures, a high degree of harmonic and rhythmic elaboration, an unusual use of counterpoint, and extensive thematic variation.  

The Intermezzi are designated as having moderation, sensitivity, and grace while the Capriccios are more active and vigorous. The works have a network of interconnections and display the qualities of eccentricity, the unusual, and humor. They are bonded by motivic connections and tonal architecture as well as a concentrated refinement of their keyboard style. Formally, these character pieces commonly use the ternary pattern, ABA.  Nos. 1, Capriccio in D minor, Presto energico, and 7, Capriccio in D minor, Allegro agitato, are the most rounded and elaborate; nos. 2, Intermezzo in A minor, Andante, and 6, Intermezzo in E Major, Andantino teneramente, are ternary, and No. 3, Capriccio in G minor, Allegro passionato, is as well, although it has a simpler ternary form. No. 4, Intermezzo in E Major, Adagio, is more harmonically grounded than No. 5, Intermezzo in E minor, Andante con grazia ed intimissimo sentiment, which uses fragmentation to create both subtle humor and strong dissonance. Often the B sections create a transformation of the main theme (A), retaining the basic profile and rhythm of the original theme or motive, but changing the mood, tempo, or tonality enough so that the listener feels s/he is hearing a contrast in theme. Brahms sometimes also uses the binary form, as in Intermezzo No. 5 in E minor. The Capriccio in D minor, No. 1, and the Intermezzo in E Major, No. 4, have a free sectional plan that does not follow any recognized scheme.   

In none of the pieces in the grouping does Brahms use bravura display or ornamentation for its own sake at all. His tendency instead is toward moderation with a strong density of texture, which makes Intermezzo No. 4, Adagio, the central work of the grouping, a piece that originally bore the title Notturno, stand out unusually. It is both intimate and subdued. It begins slowly with a five-note motif with a dark and tentative theme; the contrasting second theme, a gentle, tender melody, falls mostly in the upper register. In the middle of the piece, Brahms introduces another theme, both fluid and intimate, with gentleness and warmth. Soon, however, the original theme returns to intrude before the gentle theme returns to conclude the piece. 

In the Intermezzi nos. 3, 5, and 7, the melodies have a chordal form, stated in thirds, sixths, and octaves, both arpeggiated and moving in thirds. In Capriccio in D minor, No. 1, Presto energico, the upper voice also spells out descending thirds. A high degree of harmonic and rhythmic elaboration generally exists in these works, as well as much thematic variation and an unusual use of counterpoint. Intermezzo No. 2, Andante, has a central section created out of unusual five-, ten-, and fifteen- measure-long phrases. It has been called an example of Brahms' “autumnal” style; it also is recognized as one of the composer's most radical experiments in upsetting our notions of meter. The piece’s outer sections have a sedate triple meter, while the center section displays a song-like feel with much rubato and irregular phrase lengths.  

According to the historian F.E. Kirby, “it seems as if Brahms were looking backward, avoiding both the literary connections and the brilliance that had been exploited by Liszt and others and instead returning to something more disciplined and sober.” Regardless, Brahms certainly explores rhythmic displacement and ambiguity in general and tends to blend the concept of melody and harmony. 

© Susan Halpern, 2023

While composer and music director to Prince Leopold at Cöthen, Bach wrote three suites of dances called partitas for violin without accompaniment. The Partita No. 2 consists of only the four dances that were almost obligatory in his suites, plus a Chaconne added as a massive appendix, longer than the other four movements combined. Since there were indications that Bach saw it as a self-contained piece in its own right, historically the Chaconne has frequently been performed on its own.  

The "chaconne" was originally a dance, which probably originated in Mexico and was brought to Europe by Spanish voyagers to the New World. Early on it was described as a wild and lascivious dance, but by the time Northern European composers used it, its motion had become slow and dignified. Its structural idea is simple, a set of continuous variations over a repeated harmonic progression, but Bach’s realization of the idea is complex. The motion from the minor key to the major and back to minor makes three large sections with other subdivisions resulting from the occasional recurrence of the opening theme. There are some thirty variations in a subtle and seamless sequence. These parts become increasingly shorter in length, and in each, the musical intensification occurs more quickly to create the impression of an overarching progression. Within each section, Bach uses different techniques to build up energy and momentum. Bach’s depth of imagination and creative force in building so great a structure from so modest a subject still holds listeners in awe today. 

It is a work that makes huge demands on both the technical skill and the artistic insights of the performer. The basic subject, heard at the start, is a fragment that is made to grow into a piece of musical architecture both vast and concentrated. The effectiveness of the Chaconne is not only in its structural details, but also in its enduring emotional impact. The piece begins and ends with powerful affirmations of the theme, yet within the total, the music includes a large spectrum of emotion. 

Busoni, who made this piano version of Bach’s Chaconne in 1907, was important in his time, as an influential teacher, an inventive theorist, a magnificent pianist, and fertile composer who just missed greatness. At twenty-two, he began a series of editions and arrangements of Bach’s music that occupied him throughout his life. Some are little more than standard texts annotated for pedagogical purposes while others are new compositions derived from Bach’s music in various ways. His version of the Chaconne is somewhere in between and is perhaps best heard as a translation from one language to another.

© Susan Halpern, 2023

“True to form, Ms. Grimaud proved a focused, at times ferocious, pianist who favors a big, steely sound and bold, unsentimental playing.”

New York Times

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An Aaron Richmond Recital
Endowed by Nancy Richmond Winsten and the late Dr. Joseph Winsten

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