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By L.H. Tiffany Hsieh
She doesn’t play nice to please the listeners, but French pianist Hélène Grimaud did that anyway by giving her all at her Toronto debut recital at Koerner Hall on January 23.
Grimaud’s program — an exact replica of her latest CD, Resonances — showcases four distinctively different piano repertoires: Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 8 in A minor, K. 310, Berg’s Piano Sonata, Op. 1, Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B minor and Bartok’s Six Romanian Folk Dances.
Her ultra-robust Mozart opened the recital with an unmistakable sense of rebellion that Grimaud is often associated with in her choice of programming and interpretation. It’s Mozart madness driven by repeated intensity and head-on attacks on the minor chords in the left hand. Any piano students playing this sonata the way Grimaud did would simply be chastised for being too aggressive and lacking gracefulness. But Grimaud heightened the emotional calamity of the music and found peace and rumination in the slow movement.
With her deep breathing audible from the stage, Grimaud sent goose bumps and harmonic pleasures to the back end of the hall in the one-movement Berg sonata. She chose to perform this piece, which she first learned at the age of 11, with music and a page turner by her side. While there was no explanation for this in the program notes, Grimaud, now 41, has said in a Deutsche Grammophon interview about Resonances on YouTube that even if you have a photographic memory you can’t help but fall into a certain automatism when playing this piece. Instead, she said if you look at all of the indications of the density and richness of the markings in the score, it’s a constant reminder of what the composer was trying to achieve. The result was stunning, especially if you closed your eyes.
After intermission, Grimaud took on the mighty Liszt B-minor sonata with great strides, sometimes sacrificing precision over escalation. The pure difficulty of playing the notes in this single-structure, 30-minute piece was a second thought for a virtuoso and mature pianist like Grimaud, who immersed herself in the middle of Liszt’s fantasy of musical motives. The performance was highly focused and offered much revelation into the composer’s genius.
The last piece on the program was Bartok’s Six Romanian Folk Dances. The six vignettes — stick dance, sash dance, stamping dance, hornpipe dance, Romanian polka and quick dance — were chic and flamboyant under Grimaud’s capable hands, a rare treat during the matinee recital.
Grimaud returned to the stage before a standing crowd and ended the afternoon with a calming transcription of Dance of the Blessed Spirits from Gluck’ Orfeo ed Euridice as an encore. It wasn’t defiant, powerful, or particularly memorable. But it was nice for a change.