I was fully prepared to take notes.
Really, I was. I had a pad full of yellow post-it notes and a backup pen in case the first ran out of ink. Then HÃ©lÃ¨ne Grimaud came out, in solid blue, completely composed, took a short bow behind the bench (downstage) and got down to it.
And I realized that there was no way I was going to sit there for an hour and a half thinking of intelligent things to say about one of the most passionate and technically brilliant music performances that I have ever seen.
So I’ll reconstruct what I can from memory, things that stuck out without needing to be jotted down.
About 10 seconds into the Vivace of Beethoven’s Sonata #30 in EM, I could hear the pianist vocalizing the melody. Some found it distracting, some, like me, thought it added to the performance, reinforcing the fact that she was absolutely attached, for lack of a better word, to the music.
If the guttural humming was in any way responsible for the remarkable fluidity as melody passed from right hand to left hand and then cascaded through the falling sixteenths beginning near the instrument’s highest register, then I say we all start singing along during performances.
Watching her hands from the front row complicated things significantly; if I looked away, especially during the Adagio, I could hear the unbroken stream of melody without visually watching it pass from hand to hand or finger to finger. Liberties taken with tempo during the same movement were discrete. I got the feeling that if a metronome began at the same time as the Adagio and clicked out the precise number of beats in the movement, Grimaud and the machine would end together. Somewhere during the first third of the Andante’s variations I really abandoned my job to take decent notes. I frankly couldn’t care less whether she was at the Allegro vivace or the Un poco meno andante o un poco piu adagio come il tema.
Her fluidity in moving through the variations challenged the listener’s ability to figure where in the music he was, and, at least for me, eliminated any desire to do so. It was enough to sit there wide-eyed and open-mouthed like a five-year-old and listen.
Which I did for the rest of the variations and the entire AbM Sonata, as full of fluidity and depth of feeling as the first, notably during the Fuga, where I became convinced she had three hands.
An appreciative audience saw her off enthusiastically before the intermission and was equally excited when she returned to the stage. The EbM Intermezzo provided a brief and welcome hiatus from the thus far energetically demanding program, though the smooth legatos and delicate arpeggiations required by the piece didn’t give Grimaud much of a break from technical demand.
Then it was back to more of the unbelievable intensity and passion that we’ve begun, by this point in the program, to take for granted during the Bbm and C#m, the latter stunning in its transition from both hands in unison melody to the left hand falling into graceful, rippling accompaniment. A nearly full Chapin Hall again expressed its gratitude as she took a bow, and then dropped again to the bench and furiously attacked the F#m Second Sonata before we’d finished applauding.
She roared through the ascending passages in four octaves. At this point I revised my previous speculation to include a fourth hand for Grimaud as she continued to rip through the technically demanding first movement, ending as she simply crumpled over the instrument’s lowest register and sounded the final, detached figures. The Andante reminded us once again of her sensitivity, her sensibility in taking liberties with Tempo, and her smooth legato, especially at the movement’s final resolution, which she let linger as she leaned back, eyes glued shut. She tore through the Scherzo and Finale as much as such a refined player can tear, reintroducing her hidden third and fourth hand for some more octaves.
When it was over the elderly gentlemen next to me said to his wife “I’m standing up for that.” And he did.
And stayed standing through the second time she returned to the stage for bows when the rest of us finally joined him. She acknowledged our appreciation tastefully, adequately, and then turned and left, seemingly satisfied with her performance. If she was somewhat unemotional as the house got to its feet Grimaud cannot be held accountable; after such a performance one probably has no emotion left to give.