Her Way

By Max, D. T. | The New Yorker, November 7, 2011 | Go to article overview

Her Way


Max, D. T., The New Yorker


One day in July, Helene Grimaud was practicing the piano in a hotel room in Munich. The Palace, where she was staying, is near the Prinzregententheater, and is unusually accommodating of classical musicians; Room 606 comes equipped with a Steinway. Grimaud needed to work on the piano part to Mozart's concert aria "Ch'io mi scordi di te," which she was scheduled to record the next day, for Deutsche Grammophon. The instrument, an old upright, was not well tuned, but that did not bother Grimaud, who does not fetishize refinement. Offstage, Grimaud, who is small, often resorts to standing on the balls of her feet. But at the piano her powerful shoulders and muscled forearms make an impression. She goes at the music with flat-fingered stabs, her body crouched over the keyboard, like a swimmer preparing to dive.

Grimaud's room was mostly glass, and she likes musical extremes, so the place soon vibrated with sound, augmented by the grunting chant with which she marked passages in the aria. In "Ch'io mi scordi," the piano plays faithless lover to the brokenhearted soprano. Soprano: I can't bear to leave--I'll stay with you forever, whether you want me to or not. In response, the piano teases, flirts, revels in being desired. Grimaud, who once told the Times that she should have been born a boy, played the exchange with a taunting lilt--La-da deeh-da dah-da-dah. Grunt. Da-dah-da dah-da la-da-dah. Grunt. By the time she got to the rolling arpeggios of the song's resolution, you felt certain that the soprano had chosen the wrong shoulder to cry on.

Grimaud doesn't sound like most pianists: she is a rubato artist, a reinventor of phrasings, a taker of chances. "A wrong note that is played out of elan, you hear it differently than one that is played out of fear," she says. She admires "the more extreme players . . . people who wouldn't be afraid to play their conception to the end." Her two overriding characteristics are independence and drive, and her performances attempt, whenever possible, to shake up conventional pianistic wisdom. Brian Levine, the executive director of the Glenn Gould Foundation, sees in Grimaud a resemblance to Gould: "She has this willingness to take a piece of music apart and free herself from the general body of practice that has grown up around it." Grimaud also tries to move her audience. Emmanuel Pahud, a flautist who has played recitals with her, says, "She is a deep romantic who--probably the German language is more suitable--goes where the belly's hurting."

As she practiced the Mozart, Grimaud sometimes slowed to replay passages, slightly altering their emphases. These adjustments did not take much time--one or two tries, and she moved on. She had played the score only twice before, but she is a fast learner. She paused over a phrase in which the singer grows faint with grief; Mozart employs all twelve tones of the scale, in an arresting disruption of the piece's key, E-flat major. "This is about as modern as Mozart gets," Grimaud said, with pleasure.

At one point, her partner, the photographer Mat Hennek, stepped out of the bedroom and asked her to help negotiate the details of a piano delivery for an upcoming concert, in Gstaad. Grimaud broke off and discussed the matter in a phone call, then came back and picked up where she had left off. All told, her preparation for the recording session took only about twenty minutes. She stood up to leave. "Let's keep it fresh for tomorrow," she said, eager for dinner.

Grimaud, who is forty-two, has blue eyes and motile sandy-brown hair. At a recent performance, her hair was up for the Mozart, down for the Liszt, and back up for the encore, a transcription of Gluck's "Dance of the Blessed Spirits." On album covers, her hair telegraphs a mood. It is pinned up in a Clara Schumann-like bun for a Brahms recording, and on the cover of "Credo"--a CD of Beethoven and a pair of mystic-minded modern composers--it is tucked behind her ears, in wan, heroin-chic strands. …

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