Ask any group of passionate devotees of the piano about Hélène Grimaud, and you are likely to get as many different opinions as there are people in your sample. For some, her deeply felt, fully expressive playing is the height of contemporary music making, while others would argue she’s hit-and-miss — an immense talent but a wayward sensibility, or an idiosyncratic player as likely to bend toward chaos as beauty. The one constant when it comes to opinions of Grimaud is that no one remains neutral. This polarizing aspect of Grimaud’s art was most in evidence last Wednesday during the opening piece, W.A. Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 8 in A Minor, K. 310 (K. 300d). Tearing along at a breakneck tempo, Grimaud conjured a darker, more Beethoven-like Mozart than one might have expected, even from a pianist with her reputation. Immediately after the last note sounded, the audience registered that familiar broad range of responses, all the way from the whispers down front of “too fast” to the ecstatic whoops of “brava!” from her acolytes in the back.
From there, it was down to more modern business with the Piano Sonata Op. 1 of Alban Berg. If the opening piece sounded like Mozart-as-Beethoven, this performance of Berg was more like Beethoven from outer space, with the familiar romantic language of Beethoven’s writing for piano kaleidoscopically magnified and distorted through the lens of Berg’s teacher and mentor, Arnold Schönberg. Although the piece follows conventional sonata form in its use of exposition, development, and recapitulation, it abandons the traditional three- or four-part structure of the sonata for a single movement in which the key of B-minor wanders unstably through a Schönbergian panoply of tonality. This kind of modern music is just one of the things at which Grimaud truly excels, and her spellbinding performance of the Berg sonata was no exception. It was also the night’s last hurrah for the Hamburg-made Steinway concert grand piano that Grimaud played for the first half of the concert. After the intermission, she switched to an equally impressive New York Steinway, both of which were shipped from Los Angeles specially for her appearance here.
The most perfect fit between this supremely expressive musician and her material came at the outset of the second half of the program with the Piano Sonata in B Minor, S. 178 (LW A179) of Franz Liszt. The first half’s Mozart skeptics quickly became Grimaud converts during this majestic yet natural-sounding tour de force. It’s a substantial piece, and the Lobero audience listened raptly for the duration. Grimaud followed with Béla Bartók’s beautiful Romanian Folk Dances for Piano, Sz. 56, BB 68, a shorter, more lively composition that was over all too soon. For her encores, Grimaud chose Christoph Gluck’s Mélodie from Orfeo ed Euridice, “Dance of the Blessed Spirits,” arranged for piano by Giovanni Sgambati, and then an ethereal, barely there two minutes of Frédéric Chopin. In her elegant silver jacket and with her flowing blonde mane of hair obscuring her face, Grimaud was every inch the contemporary instrumentalist as romantic figure, following the wild wind of her muse wherever it takes her.