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Helene Grimaud

Music Review: Hélène Grimaud – ‘For Clara,’ Music of Schumann and Brahms

With Robert Schumann’s Kreisleriana Hélène Grimaud makes a stormy statement to open her new album of music by Schumann and Johannes Brahms.

In the dramatic first piece of this sequence of eight, the rhythms seem to boil up from a careering sea of sound as if to say, Behold my depths. And the second piece, by far the longest at over 10 minutes, establishes that in Grimaud’s hands those reaches extend to the tragical-pastoral and beyond.

The studied brilliance and focused sensitivity Grimaud brings to the Schumann should not surprise anyone who has followed the pianist’s career. Still, this album of music by Schumann and Brahms stands in marked contrast to her recent recording with baritone Konstantin Krimmel of art songs by Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov – a set of far more placid music.

Krimmel joins her again here in Brahms’ Op. 38 Lieder und Gesänge. But the bulk of the new album belongs to the pianist alone.

Grimaud finds and delivers, in the Kreisleriana especially, well-nigh all one could ask for in these impassioned, occasionally weird works. No. 3 sounds electric, cloudy, even Chopin-esque, sixteenth-notes blurring almost into grace notes in a way that feels darkly feverish, not overwrought. No. 6 sounds stark, with minimal sustain pedal, each note and chord limned with scarred precision.

Enter Johannes

The Nordic-sounding dance that concludes the sequence leaps and blossoms like a living forest floor, apt groundwork for the three Op. 117 Brahms intermezzi that follow.

Grimaud applies a notably light touch in No. 1, where despite the piano marking, the soulful melody can inspire a pianist to over-romanticize the piece. Grimaud gleans that all the emotion necessary is plain in the rolling harmonic movement and the bittersweet melodies on the page. Her approach, spare and even faintly hesitant, spells out details that some performances glide over. Here and in No. 2, Grimaud draws out the ghostly endings, as if she’s reluctant for the piece to be over. The listener may feel the same way.

Helene Grimaud For Clara

Delicacy and ease characterize both No. 2 and No. 3. The former, one of my favorites, floats by in elastic arpeggios, developing in intensity, finally subsiding into gentleness. The latter marches softly past in a peaceful flow, broken by angled rhythms flashing into the keyboard’s upper register and rendered with a kind of startled spirit. This is a deceptively complex piece and we can be grateful to this pianist for “explaining” it as sensitively as she does here.

Songs with Words

Konstantin Krimmel asserts multidimensional power and a necessarily richer color palette in the Brahms songs than he needed in the Silvestrov. Along with a glistening tone with bright high harmonics, he has a gift for giving poetic lyrics a conversational air that lets the pure essence of the music shine. Grimaud’s nuanced, dynamic accompaniment well suits his glowing, gentlemanly storytelling.

That’s not to say Krimmel doesn’t bring the Romantic energy when it’s called for, as in, for example, the “where is he now” [the man I used to be]” climax to No. 4, or the moment when the poet in No. 6 shouts “du liebst nicht mehr! (you love me no more!),” or even when, in No. 3, “es stürmt ein Schauer mit Macht herein” (“a shower storms mightily towards us”). It’s just that he seems to have mastered a fine calculus of how much emotion is needed and when. No. 8, with Brahms’ music in a cooler mode, encapsulates Krimmel’s tonal and dynamic gifts, while the creamy quality of his upper register helps grace No. 9 with an array of contrasts.

Much was said, done, and written “for Clara” in the Schumann household. Robert Schumann declined into madness as Brahms’ genius flowered. Love for the great pianist Clara Schumann ruled their hearts, and wondrous music resulted. You need know none of this, though, to revel in this beautiful music as it’s brilliantly played here.

For Clara is out September 8 on Deutsche Grammophon.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Music, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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