Taking a Chance with Mozart

by Julie Amacher, Minnesota Public Radio
November 15, 2011
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St. Paul, Minn. — Hélène Grimaud is not your typical pianist. She likes to play with the tempo. She likes to reinvent phrases and she likes to take chances. Taking chances is how Hélène Grimaud ended up making her first Mozart recording not with the world-renowned conductor Claudio Abbado and his Mozart Orchestra, but with the Bavarian Radio Chamber Orchestra.

Abbado and Grimaud disagreed on which cadenza to use for Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23. Grimaud fell in love with Italian pianist Ferruccio Busoni's cadenza after hearing Vladimir Horowitz play it on his recording. Abbado begged to differ, but Grimaud stuck to her guns. Eventually she decided to issue a different performance, with a different orchestra, and she couldn't be more pleased with the result. "I think what makes the recording special, is that it wasn't planned," she explains. "These were initially only recorded concerts for radio broadcasts."

According to Grimaud, it's not just the chemistry between soloist and orchestra that makes this live recording so special. "The public becomes an integral part of that experience because that element of shared freedom between piano and orchestra is taking the audience by the hand. If you're blessed enough to have a concert where time stops, where something is happening between the notes, then you certainly can not take the audience out of that equation."

In the past 25 years, this French pianist has put out some 20 CDs, but this is her first full Mozart recording. Grimaud has played some of his sonatas and concertos in the past. She says returning to Mozart after some 18 years is like going back to a childhood friend and reconnecting. So why was now the right time to record Mozart? "That's very much connected to the last album, 'Resonances,' " she explains, "which starts with the A minor Sonata. Because of the work that I did on that piece I knew it was time do to a recording that was entirely devoted to his music."

Her new release opens with Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 19 in F major, K. 459. Grimaud loves this concerto because it's extremely entertaining, "There's a contagious vitality, playfulness, humor in this music which really changes the mood. It has this power of altering the way you feel that's actually pretty profound." That in itself would be enough for Grimaud, yet she says there is so much more to this work, "There's something very touching, I mean if we look just at the second movement, these modulations into the minor tonalities are really poignant moments and there's something so innocent and tender about the music which I think is just touching people."

What makes Mozart's music so fascinating is the depth of emotion contained within each piece--"But there's never any trace of sentimentality," according to Grimaud, who cites the sublime second movement of Mozart's Concerto No. 23 in A major as a perfect example. "The result of this grace, this weightlessness, this quality of impermanence make it even more relevant to people's lives. So it really set him apart from others." And then there's the issue of the cadenza. During Mozart's time, pianists were expected to improvise their cadenzas-not to repeat the same one every time. With that in mind, instead of playing Mozart's widely used cadenza, Grimaud plays the one written by Ferruccio Busoni for the first movement. It's a more enthusiastic piece, concluding with both hands playing spunky trills. In that sense, Grimaud feels it's more Mozartean than the one Mozart wrote.

At the center of this new release is a beautiful Mozart aria, "Non temer, amato bene," sung by German soprano Mojca Erdmann with Grimaud at the piano. "I think it's a wonderful piece," she says, "There's a quality of tenderness. It's like a love declaration with sounds, but it's also quite complex. If you look at the text you could interpret what's going on in many ways." Grimaud describes this piece as liquid gold. It's bright, like sunlight. Yet as you listen you wonder, Is the piano the seducer or the seduced? Either way, in the end love does win.

Hélène Grimaud sees herself as a link between the composer and the audience. Her live concerts are full of surprises and this new live release with the Bavarian Radio Chamber Orchestra is no exception. In these performances something wonderful happened between the notes, and now you can experience it, too.

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