Pianist Helene Grimaud at Meany: Three B’s and a Magisterial C


The distinguished French pianist Hélène Grimaud returned to the Meany Center for the Performing Arts on Saturday for a concert of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms – the three B’s of old. In a sly bit of programming, rather than starting with the Bach, she instead gave him the last word.

By the time he was 50, Beethoven was deep into his project to transform classical form into something new. Compositions from this time, namely the last three piano sonatas and the Missa Solemnis, are radical experiments in their respective forms. Indeed, listening to Grimaud play the op. 109 sonata reminded me of how profoundly weird and sublime this music is.  

Her choice of tempi in the first movement highlighted its mercurial gear shifts, perhaps at the expense of overall coherence. The great theme and variations of the finale were a different matter however, as Grimaud underlined the extremes of mood beautifully, from pointillist fancy to the variation a la Goldberg to the ecstatic long trill (flawlessly executed) before the final restatement of the main theme.

The Brahms op. 116 Fantasies and op. 117 Intermezzi formed the fulcrum of Grimaud’s program. Like the Beethoven, these are late works of greater pith and density than his earlier compositions. Brahms conveys an additional element of grief that even the usually reticent composer confessed to, especially in the three lullabies of op. 117 which formed the balance of the recital’s first half.

Grimaud’s fluid style captured the elegiac mood of these well-loved masterpieces, given as a unified whole like the Beethoven sonata. Unfortunately, the familiar acoustic shell that projects most solo and chamber performances into the hall was missing, and with it a degree of intimacy to which many patrons have grown accustomed.

After intermission, Grimaud again presented the seven Capricci and Intermezzi of opus 116 as a unit, underscoring the careful way Brahms organized, through key relationships and varying character, these free-standing pieces as a suite. She had particular success with the central Intermezzi in E major and E minor, conveying a profound sense of tenderness and melancholy. Grimaud built the final D minor Capriccio to a tremendous climax, flying through its frenzied conclusion. And then she delivered a surprise. 

Brahms developed a lifelong devotion to composers of the baroque era, and his romantic music shows a deep knowledge of old dances like the sarabande and compositional structures like the fugue. When he discovered the Chaconne from Bach’s D minor Partita for solo violin in 1877, Brahms made a piano transcription for the left hand and sent it to Clara Schumann. “On one stave, for a small instrument, the man [Bach] writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings,” he wrote her. “If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.”

Composer-pianist Ferruccio Busoni also wrote a transcription of the Bach Chaconne, one of the monuments of virtuoso pianism.  It was this grand work Grimaud appended to the op. 116 set. The surprise came when she kept her hands poised over the keyboard at the finish of the Brahms D minor capriccio and launched into the Bach-Busoni without a break. 

This elision caught many in the audience (including myself) off guard, ready as we were to applaud the Brahms. The thundering of the Bach-Busoni quickly subsumed my misgivings about the idea however, and Grimaud’s traversal of the work was magisterial.  But was it fair to paste an unrelated work onto a self-contained collection of character pieces? 

I ran through some of the possible explanations. The Chaconne is in the same key as the first and last of the op. 116 Capricci. Brahms had a history with the Bach and frequently used baroque variation forms at the end of his compositions (he ended his own fourth symphony with an immense Chaconne). Brahms wrote op. 116 in 1892, Busoni his transcription a year later. And besides, what’s the difference between accepting or skipping the applause in between? Big deal.

I’m still of two minds about it. The Chaconne made a magnificent and exciting finale to the Brahms Fantasies, but it would have had the same impact on its own. It deformed Brahms’ very carefully organized book of little musical poems (which has its own effective finale.) Perhaps Grimaud has lived with these pieces long enough to earn the right to present them in novel ways. 

Grimaud played three encores, including a ruminative Bagatelle by the Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov and one of the Rachmaninov op. 33 Etudes-Tableaux.

James C. Whitson
James C. Whitson
James Whitson is a retired architect who writes about opera for "Opera News" and "Encore."


  1. The review is difficult to access without a level of musicianship akin to the author. That said, I learned a lot, but I also understand the fine line a music reviewer walks when deciding who her/his audience is. I attended the same concert and was taken with Hélene Grimaud’s passion, skill, and intepretation with the realization that comparisons founder on the unique quality of live performance. My enthusiasm mirrored a nearly full Meany Hall who erupted in applause. Indeed that Brahms to Bach no pause transition that Mr. Whitson notes caught those offguard who did start to applaud before quickly realizing the “suprise”.
    As a frequent concertgoer one motivation is the joy of live perfermance. Even when recorded and replayed, live performance is the first chance to hear the interpretation that marks the concert, and if not recorded the only hearing of the version that anyone will ever hear. Most solists I have heard agree that no matter how often they perform any piece, no two performances are alike. The 1000 or so of those us who heard the Grimaud recital had a unique experience. I’m not smart enough to hear the analysis.

  2. I have the program of Hélène Grimaud’s recital at Meany on February 21, 2001. Then, she started the program with the Busoni transcription of the Chaconne from Partita in D minor.


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