Mark Gresham | 31 OCT 2022
Thursday evening’s concert by French pianist Hélène Grimaud brought a number of small works together for its first half, followed by one of the most prominent solo piano cycles of 19th-century Romanticism in an engaging, thoughtful program of contrasts and commonalities.
The program’s first half brought together the music of four composers: familiar names Frédéric Chopin, Claude Debussy, and Erik Satie, and a far less familiar Ukrainian composer-pianist, Valentin Silvestrov (Валенти́н Сильве́стров), born in 1937 in Kyiv, Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, then part of the Soviet Union.
After graduating from the Kyiv Conservatory in 1964, Sylvestrov taught at a music studio in Kyiv, then became a freelance composer there from 1970 to 2022, when he fled Ukraine for Berlin, Germany, following the February Russian invasion.
That said, the simplest way to explain the first half of Grimaud’s recital program is that the playlist is precisely the same as the tracklist from her 2018 album, Memory (Deutsche Grammophon B0029051-02 GH) sans tracks 7 and 15.
Since Silvestrov is likely an unfamiliar name to readers, here are the two Bagatelles from that album, Nos. I and II. Grimaud played both to open Thursday’s recital, with Debussy’s elegant Arabesque No. 1 poised between them, setting the mood for the program’s first half.
That mood-setting is essential if, like Hélène Grimaud, a performer is more interested in how music goes beyond the rational and elicits emotional responses in listeners. Here, she has chosen and organized her repertoire around the transient nature of memory, conceptualizing the music, to quote her own words, as “crystalline miniatures capturing time.” Silvestrov fits in well with the more familiar, earlier composers in that regard.
The association between music and memory is itself hardly an innovative theme. Still, Grimaud handled it with finesse in this performance, almost a stream-of-consciousness experience with no real breaks between pieces for applause, and the music rarely rose beyond the most moderate dynamic levels. In Grimaud’s hands, what we got from this mix of composers was a sense of their commonalities rather than their differences.
Boldness and contrast came after intermission with Robert Schumann’s dramatic Kreisleriana, Op. 16, a work which Grimaud recorded when she was nearly 20 years old on a 1989 album along with the Piano Sonata No. 2 of Johannes Brahms.
Subtitled “Phantasien für das Pianoforte” (“Fantasias for the Pianoforte”), Kreisleriana is one of Schumann’s finest compositions. Inspired by the kaleidoscopic, eccentric character Johannes Kreisler, one of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s literary creations, each of the eight fantasias in the cycle has multiple contrasting sections, resembling the fictional musician’s manic depression, much like the fictional “Florestan” and “Eusebius” represented the opposite sides of Schumann’s own bipolar personality.
Instead of the commonalities between four different composers, in this half of the program, we got the conflicting and complementary internal aspects of a single composer’s personality, with Grimaud fully engaging the range of expression available in the music, from passionate fire and fury to sensitive and contemplative.
After it was over, Grimaud returned to the stage three times for encores before taking her final bow for the evening.* ■
*As of press time, we were awaiting confirmation of encore titles. We will update here if word arrives.