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Johann Sebastian Bach: Prelude and Fugue no. 2 in C minor, BWV 847 – Prelude and Fugue no. 4 in C# minor, BWV 949 (Well Tempered Clavier, Book I) – Concerto for Piano no. 1 in D minor, BWV 1052 – Prelude and Fugue no. 6 in D minor, BWV 875 (Well Tempered Clavier, Book II)
J. S. Bach/Ferruccio Busoni: Chaconne in D minor, BWV 1004 (arranged from Violin Partita no. 2)
J. S. Bach: Prelude and Fugue no. 20 in A minor, BWV 889 (Well Tempered Clavier, Book II)
J. S. Bach/Franz Liszt: Prelude and Fugue in A minor, BWV 543
J. S. Bach: Prelude and Fugue no. 9 in E major, BWV 878 (Well Tempered Clavier, Book II)
J. S. Bach/Sergei Rachmaninoff: Prelude in E major, BWV 1003 (arranged from Violin Partita no. 3)

Hélène Grimaud (piano), Die Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, Florian Donderer (Leader)
Recorded in 2008 – 75'43
Deutsche Grammophon 477 7978 – Program Notes in English, German, French

Hélène Grimaud’s concept of playing of J. S. Bach on the modern piano has a singularly individual vision. That being said, her playing is at once fascinating and disturbing. It is fascinating because of its remarkable clarity and precision. It is disturbing because she plays everything as if she is performing on a harpsichord. She makes no concessions in pursuing the possibilities of tone, tempo, and texture that are open to one with performance on a piano. I listened to these recordings no less than three times over and did not become more comfortable with her playing. I am hesitant to pass judgment on them, as I know for some listeners they will be ideal.

In the program notes Ms. Grimaud states that years ago she had a revelation while practicing Bach. There was a harpsichord in the room she was using and she decided to play on it for a while. It was this experience, she relates, that gave her the vision as to how Bach’s music should be played. Indeed, when I heard her play the Prelude and Fugue no. 2 in c minor, BWV 847, from The Well Tempered Clavier, Book I, I was appalled at the relentlessly fast tempo she employed, giving no rubato even to the cadenza! It was completely square. “She’s playing this like she were playing a harpsichord,” I thought, and as I was to discover later, that was her exact intent. I am all for letting music speak for itself, but I find these performances too literal, and frankly dull.

It is true that Bach’s music seems to adapt to any instrument or to any interpretation. One need only remember the numerous performances of Bach on synthesizers or wood block ensembles, or consider the playing of Glenn Gould and the legion of admirers he cultivated with his quirky approach to Bach. In fact, I would say that Ms. Grimaud’s playing of Bach is certainly most unusual heard since the heyday of Glenn Gould.
And, as I said earlier, this may be to many folks liking.

I was most convinced with her playing of the Piano Concerto no. 1. It is a superb performance and she has the excellent support of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie. The orchestral textures are extremely clear, as is the articulation of the piano line. She has a queer habit of banging out the bass line against the melody, which has the effect of making the music sound overly trite at moments.

Her best playing is to found in the Bach transcriptions by Busoni, Liszt, and Rachmaninoff. I found them compelling and most enjoyable. In these pieces Ms. Grimaud opens all the tonal possibilities of the modern piano. Of course she does not approach the music in the manner of a Wilhelm Kempf or Vladimir Horowitz. It does not have that “old school” style of grand architecture. She distills the music with her very pure approach and the result is a crystalline, 21st century revision of these romantic transcriptions. For those who desire a broader approach, however, these performances will not do.

In summation I would say the breadth of Bach’s own music is cramped by the constraints of Hélène Grimaud’s confined concept and approach. Nonetheless, for many, it will be the perfect “cup of tea.”

Micaele Sparacino




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