Alyrico-dramatic performer, Hélène Grimaud disarms audiences before winning them over with her command of classical and romantic piano works, particularly by Austro-German composers. Of her burly keyboarding, she remarked to Heidi Waleson of SCHWANNopus, “People look at me, and they don’t think I’ll play big, so it’s proportionately bigger than they expect. And they obsess on it.” Comparing her fastidious musical interpretations to those of Vladimir Horowitz and Jorge Bolet, her fans have called her a “powerhouse prodigy” with sweep, vehemence, introspection, electrifying technique, and lush sound, particularly in left-hand voicings that slightly anticipate the right. As quoted in an article in Piano & Keyboard magazine, the New York Times said of her performance of Mozart, “Her heart [was] speaking acutely and specifically with every depression of the keys.” That same article noted that music critic David Vernier lauded her as “one of the latter 20th-century’s major talents.”
Born in 1969 in Aix-en-Provence, France, Grimaud described family nationalities in a New York Times interview with John Rockwell: “My father came from a background of Sephardic Jews in Africa, and my mother’s ancestors were Jewish Berbers from Corsica.” She grew up in a household engrossed in classical language, architecture, and painting. Of an agitated childhood, she admitted in Piano & Keyboard, “I was on the verge of being antisocial at school, and I was also obsessed with symmetry.” After discarding dance, martial arts, and tennis at age nine, she convinced a music teacher of her gift for melody and rhythm and quickly absorbed herself in keyboard performance. Accounting for her earlier behavioral difficulties, she asserted in Piano & Keyboard, “My parents always thought I had a surplus of physical energy, but it really was mental energy, and the piano took care of that.”
After only three years’ grounding in the classics with Jacqueline Courtin, in 1982 Grimaud began receiving instruction from Pierre Barbizet of the Marseilles Conservatoire in preparation for enrollment at the Paris Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique, where she began studying with Jacques Rouvier in 1985. In addition to required courses, she enjoyed sight-reading with Christian Ivaldi, a break from classical strictures that enriched and stimulated Grimaud while introducing her to a wider repertoire. Because of her youth, she crowded sessions into two days a week and commuted south to Aix to be with her parents as much as possible.
In her second year at the Conservatory, Grimaud rebelled against the tedious etudes required for a piano exam and withdrew to Aix for a month to comfort herself with Brahms pieces. Rouvier, testy with teen whims, warned that if she failed to learn the basics, he would send her to a “teacher with an iron hand,” Grimaud told Waleson. She compromised with departmental demands by playing a Chopin concerto with the school orchestra and tacking on the three obligatory etudes as encores. A tape of the performance earned her a first recording offer from Denon.
In her last two years of formal study, while sensibly pursuing literature, history, and writing and completing a degree in ethology (animal behavior), Grimaud remained true to music but feared she could never make a living at it. She mastered works by Stockhausen, Beethoven, Ohana, Rachmaninoff, and Scarlatti, a varied program that won her first prize in the student competition. At age 16, she won a Grand Prix du Disque—the French Grammy—after recording Rachmaninoff’s Sonata No. 2 and the Etudes-Tableaux, Op. 33. She entered post-graduate study under Rouvier, Leon Fleisher, and Gyorgy Sandor and, against Rou-vier’s advice, dropped the Busoni Competition in favor of the Tchaikovsky Competition in Russia. In three grueling weeks, she survived the cut to the last 30 (out of 130 entrants), but won no prizes.
Resentful of a new conservatory director obsessed with contemporary composers, the next year, Grimaud withdrew from the conservatory and set out on her own. Playing the Liszt E-Flat Concerto, she debuted in February of 1987 with the Orchestre de Paris, directed by Daniel Barenboim. When she felt unduly pressured to learn a work for a concert, she didn’t hesitate to refuse. Fortunately, an appealing invitation to Gidon Kremer’s Lockenhaus Festival in Austria paired her in four-handed performance with Martha Argerich. From the venture, Grimaud released a live recording of
Born in 1969 in Aix-en-Provence, France.
Began studying piano, 1978; entered Paris Conservatory, 1985; recorded with Denon, 1986; debuted with the Orchestre de Paris, 1987; based her career in Tallahassee, FL, 1991; moved to Westchester County, NY, 1997.
Awards: First prize in student competition, Paris Conservatory, 1986; Grand Prix du Disque, 1986; Concerto of the Year, Cannes MIDEM Festival, 1999.
Addresses: Record company —Atlantic Records, 1290 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10104, phone: (212) 707-2533, website: http:/www.atlantic-records.com.
Schumann’s A-Minor Violin Sonata. Gradually, she worked backwards from Stravinsky and Prokofiev to standard works—Bach and Mozart—the points at which most keyboard performers learn their trade.
Grimaud’s career has taken her across Europe and to North America and the Far East in appearances with the Deutsches Sinfonie-Orchester Berlin, English Chamber Orchestra, London Symphony, Tokyo NHK Symphony, Leipzig Gewandhaus, and Israel Philharmonic. As she matured, she stopped flitting from piece to piece to learn more slowly. Of her approach to individual works, she values time spent away from the piano playing in her head, sometimes in the dark, to create a mental image of each piece. Of her rejection of routine, she explained in Piano & Keyboard, “I like to follow [Claudio] Arrau’s advice about practicing trills with different speeds, articulations, dynamic variations, fingerings, and rhythm always with a beautiful sound.” By retreating from focusing on difficulties, she works out the musical context.
In 1991, Grimaud emigrated to Tallahassee, Florida, to be near a boyfriend who taught bassoon at Florida State University. Of life in the United States, she elaborated in the New York Times, “In America, I enjoy the friendliness, but I can be anonymous.” In 1997, she settled north of New York City in a wooden house on spacious acreage in Westchester County. She obtained a license to raise British Columbian wolves-Apache, Lila, and Lucas—at her farm, a getaway where she could also practice by night and take time for herself between concerts. She expressed her affinity for hybrid dog-wolves because, as she told Piano & Keyboard, they are “free-spirited and inquisitive,” two adjectives that typify her as well.
In summer 1997, Grimaud was the subject of a television documentary filmed in New York. In the interview for Piano & Keyboard conducted a few weeks later, she named Vladimir Horowitz and Glenn Gould as her favorite pianists and surprised interviewer Charles Timbrell with her disdain for the sterility of French music. She explained her rejection for measured French technique, “I always feel like I’m walking on eggshells, that I’m playing it too heavily or perhaps not ‘impressionistically’ enough.”
Grimaud’s intensity, risk-taking, and self-control accentuate all of her endeavors, including a campaign at the New York Wolf Conservation Center that she initiated to combat animal stereotyping. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, she broke new ground by debuting with the New York Philharmonic, Boston Symphony, and Philadelphia Orchestra, and she toured the Czech Republic. In this same period, she ended her alliance with the Erato label and agreed to record one disc per year for Teldec, beginning with Brahms solos.
Grimaud limited her income by channeling most of her money into animal conservation. After practicing for years on an out-of-tune, 30-year-old Yamaha upright, she earmarked one sum for a Yamaha grand with action heavy enough to suit her tempestuous, athletic style. Testing the instrument’s legato with choice Chopin works, she exulted in the Yamaha’s warmth, range, and weight.
Of her expenditure of self and talent to the musical world, Grimaud confided to Bernard Jacobsen, critic-interviewer for Fanfare magazine: “The more you grow, the more difficult you realize it all is, the more risky you realize it all is, and I think the more humbling it is.” Describing herself as a mere vehicle for music rather than a public icon, she describes her sense of a higher power through concert settings that work so well that they advance from musical to spiritual events.
Rachmaninoff—Piano Sonate No. 2, Denon, 1986.
Chopin—Ballade No. 1; Liszt—Après Une Lecture de Dante; Schumann—Piano Sonate No. 1, Denon, 1987.
Liszt, Schumann, Chopin: Piano Music, Denon, 1987.
Rachmaninov: Piano Sonata No. 2, Etudes-Tableaux, Denon, 1987.
Brahms: Piano Sonata No. 2, Denon, 1989.
Robert Schumann—Sonate for Violin and Piano in A Minor, Op. 105, Philips, 1989.
Schumann—Kreisleriana; Brahms—Piano Sonate No. 2, Denon, 1989.
Brahms—Piano Sonate No. 3, Denon, 1992.
Rachmaninoff—Piano Concerto No. 2; Ravel—Piano Concerto in G Major, Denon, 1993.
Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 2, Denon, 1994.
Brahms: Piano Pieces Op 116-119, Erato, 1996.
Schumann: Piano Concerto; Strauss: Burleske, Erato, 1996.
Gershwin, Ravel: Piano Concertos, Erato, 1997.
Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1, Erato, 1998.
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4, Teldec, 1999.
Sergei Rachmaninov—Piano Concerto No. 2, Op. 18, Teldec, 2001.
Albuquerque Journal, April 21, 2000; August 19, 2001.
Boulder Daily Camera, August 9, 1998; August 13, 1998.
Fanfare, September/October 2000.
Le Monde, June 24, 1999.
New York Times, May 29, 1994, p. H22.
Omaha World Herald, April 23, 2000; April 24, 2000.
Piano & Keyboard, July/August 1997.
SCHWANNopus, Winter 1999-2000.
Willams Record (Williamstown, MA), February 10, 1998.
“Hélène Grimaud: A Pianist Unlike Any Other,” Label France, http://www.france.diplomatie.gouv.fr/labeLfrance/ENGLISH/ART/grimaud/grimaud.html (December 3, 2001).
“Hélène Grimaud, Intelligence de la simplicité,” La Scena Musicale, http://www.scena.org/columns/reviews/010113-SV-TSOGrimaud.html (December 3, 2001).
“Helène Grimaud, Piano,” Prague Autumn, http://www.pragueautumn.cz/english/1_soubor1_2_29.htm (December 3, 2001).
“Hélène Grimaud, Piano,” Shriver Hall Concert Series, http://shNverconcerts.org/oldseason/GNmaud.html (December 3, 2001).
“Hélène Grimaud’s Biography,” Helene Grimaud, Classical Pianist, http/www.multimania.com/laurenthachet/Grimaud/english/biogteld.html (December 3, 2001).
—Mary Ellen Snodgrass