Interview: Hélène Grimaud on her new Bach album and singing herself hoarse at the Proms

'It travels better than any other, it's universal by nature. For me the essence of this music seems to be much more free of whatever vehicle might be conveying it.'

18 November 2008

Hélène Grimaud (photo © Mat Hennek/DG)Hélène Grimaud is a long way off your usual jet-setting concert pianist. Her much publicised work with wolves – she was a driving force behind establishing a sanctuary and educational centre near New York around a decade ago – and her beguiling beauty have been used to detract from her pedigree as a pianist. Nor can her record label, Deutsche Gramophon, be blamed for exploiting her highly marketable image.

In an industry where contracts are now too often routinely awarded for short-lived, photogenic cross-over artists, however, Grimaud's longevity speaks for itself. Upon graduating from the Conservatoire in Paris, she recorded a debut disc of Rachmaninoff for the now-defunct Japanese label Denon. Her latest disc, over a dozen well-received albums and two decades later, is her first recording of Bach.

When we meet, she's in London publicising the album and rehearsing Rachmaninoff and Schumann ahead of a whistlestop tour, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Vladimir Jurowksi. The tour takes in eight venues in Germany and Luxembourg in as many days, before returning to the Royal Festival Hall on 26 November. She's been rushing from one interview to another, but takes it all in her stride and settles down to chat with a disarming, wide-eyed enthusiasm and an enviable aura of calm.

We start off by talking about her new album. Her recordings for DG reflect Grimaud's questioning attitude towards the standard repertoire and her first release on the yellow label coupled Beethoven with Gorigliano and Pärt; 'Reflection' brought together the works of Clara and Robert Schumann with Brahms. On her new Bach disc she performs two Preludes and Fugues from The Well-Tempered Clavier and the D minor Piano Concerto – with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen – alongside transcriptions by Busoni, Liszt and Rachmaninoff. Does this decision, I ask, reflect a belief that Bach's music transcends questions of authenticity?

For Grimaud, there's obviously no question that this is the case. 'If you think how Bach engaged himself with the issues of instrument making and how much energy he spent trying to get the manufacture of the organ to develop and improve, you cannot possibly imagine that if he had been presented with the Steinway of today that he would have said, "Oh, no, but I don't think so, thank you." That's unthinkable, that would never have happened.

'So we learned a lot from the Baroque movement. I'm not going to try and minimise what they did in terms of bringing to life certain ideas with the sound and the phrasing. In the end though, and I've said this in my introduction to the CD, it's about the emotional relationship I have with each piece. The other fascinating thing about the music is that it travels better than any other, it's universal by nature. For me the essence of this music seems to be much more free of whatever vehicle might be conveying it.'

It's Grimaud's first recording of Bach but the pianist is returning to two staples of her repertoire in her up-coming tour. When Grimaud guest-edited Gramophone earlier in the year, she chose Vladimir Jurowski to interview above all other artists appearing at this year's Proms. 'He's truly a fantastic, brilliantly intelligent artist' she tells me, adding, 'but not in a futile sort of way which many people are, unfortunately. He has that wonderful intuition, sensitivity and charisma and everything you could want in a musical partner. That's also why I wanted to record with him [they recorded Beethoven's 'Emperor' Concerto, released in 2007] and I'm very much looking forward to this tour. There's something very special about touring. You bond over a number of performances and the pieces are always evolving. Anyway, it's never quite the same but in this type of environment it can really be a wonderful shared adventure with the orchestra. I've always Hélène Grimaud with Vladimir Jurowski (photo © Mat Hennek/DG)been very fond of working like that.'

She agrees that it's a welcome opportunity to develop an interpretation with other musicians over a length of time but still betrays some envy of the luxurious rehearsal schedules afforded festival opera, in particular.

'I went to Glyndeborne to visit Vladimir and his family when he was there preparing for Onegin, and I found myself wondering what could be accomplished if we as soloists had weeks of rehearsal instead of one rehearsal and a dress. I love this idea of growing together, and you're always looking deeper when you have the luxury of time. And in the case of touring it's unfortunately not in the working process but it happens anyway since of course every concert is a learning experience. So it's not only qualitatively but quantitively different to any other way of making music with colleagues.'

The collaborative musical process is obviously what Grimaud enjoys most and I mention her 'Reflections' disc in which she accompanied Anne Sofie von Otter and Truls Mørk. Is this the sort of project she is looking to repeat?

'Yes, I've got so many ideas in that direction and so many possibilities. This one came from a frustration at not having much time for chamber music and I'd always, in my limited way, wanted to do more. Since that recording there's been a lot more, and it's really made the last three years for me, being able to do these projects on a much more sustained level. It used to be a matter of getting off the plane, doing a rehearsal for a day, doing the concert and then maybe meeting up a year later. So it's great when you can have regular rehearsal periods with different players and different projects and carte blanche on what you're doing; especially when it's projects that can repeat themselves in different places. That's been very gratifying, I've enjoyed that very much and am happy to be doing more in my concert life and in tours and recording as well.'

For Grimaud the systematic approach to recording has little appeal. But, she tells me, 'in my repertoire I've marinated with the same composers for twenty-five years now – so I'm not looking at pieces in isolation but have an overall view. It's true, though, since as long as I can remember, even in the early days with Denon, I had no interest in doing, you know, Beethoven One and Three, or Two and Four. I was always more intrigued by the different facets of one composer.'

It transpires that Grimaud has spent most of the day being followed around by a French television crew. It's an extra inconvenience she takes graciously in her stride but demonstrates the fact that, unsurprisingly, she enjoys special celebrity status in her native France. Apart from an early recording of the Ravel concerto, though, she has all but avoided the French repertory.  

'My real affinity was always with the German Romantics,' she explains. 'This was already the case for me in literature and came through in music but then there was also the conscious decision of not letting people characterise me in a particular way. At the very beginning I was very happy to go and play in Germany when I was seventeen and eighteen, to go and play a German programme or concerto instead of going to play Debussy or Fauré. And it's not because I consider this repertoire a lesser repertoire – by no stretch of the imagination – but it's just less my world; I was never much of a colourist so impressionistic repertoire is just not my cup of tea. So it's organic but it's also something that I wanted to see happen anyway.

Hélène Grimaud (photo © Mat Hennek/DG)'The only complaints I get in France are that I don't play there enough, but that's also to do with the way musical life in France is very centralised – the opposite of Germany – it's mainly based around Paris, although there are a couple of truly excellent orchestras in the provinces, but they are more isolated cases. I think you can never under-estimate the public. They know what's real and what's a gimmick that's not going to last. In the beginning, people complained a bit when I left that it was a rejection of the country and the culture, but no, I think it's part of the French rebellious tendency and the spark in the character, where there's an incredible amount of irreverence. So it wasn't a rejection it was just a need for broadening of horizons.'

One French composer you might have expected Grimaud to have a special affinity with is Olivier Messiaen, a fellow synaesthesiac. 'I adore his music, one of the most fascinating and evocative composers there ever was. I played a lot of his pieces when I was at the conservatoire in Paris, or rather I learnt them, but I definitely intend to do that. It will come in time as well, though.' No rush to get involved in his anniversary year? 'No, I've never been really good at those occasions…they come and go.'

Grimaud is now a regular on the London concert platform, appearing in the Royal Festival Hall and the Barbican, as well the Royal Albert Hall. As she tells me, though, this has not always been the case.

'I have a special relationship with London for all sorts of reasons. But the beginning of my career here was a debacle, a catastrophe. I mean I've been around professionally for twenty-three years and have to pinch myself. But somehow, I don't know what it was at the start, but I would say for the first ten or even fifteen years, for whatever bizarre reason, it was as though every time I got sick it was when I was supposed to come to London. So I cancelled a lot here and then that changed, all of a sudden, about ten years ago, it sort of switched like that and I started coming more regularly. It's a place I love to come and I love to work. I love the three orchestras, or I should say four, with the BBC as well who've I've only worked with in the context of the Proms, but I love the Philharmonia, the LSO and the LPO. There's a richness of possibilities.'

Grimaud is unusually open about the business of self-promotion and talks with evident pleasure about her work. She is aware, though, of the strange position her marketability has put her in, and she's obviously suffered at the hands of those who accuse her, unfairly, of selling out in the name of marketing. 'For me as long as you're not commercialised, things are fine, provided that you present yourself at a high level. It's always astonishing for me how quickly you suffer prejudice, and it's almost as if you end up having to apologise. It's quite hypocritical in a way, because which artist is doing something for no-one to know about? That's not the idea. But you find yourself in a weird position where there's always a kind of conflict with part of the specialised press. Because you have this conflict between the few and then the mainstream and somehow you end up being some kind of prostitute because – God forbid! – you're female and not so bad to look at. Then you've sold out to promotion, and you're in a very weird position of having to apologise for what you do. It's a privilege to be given a chance to talk about it. You can't on the one hand whine about the decline of the classical music industry and then try to shoot people down, who, artificially or not, are trying to promote it. Give people a fucking break!

Hélène Grimaud (photo © Mat Hennek/DG)'And there's this bizarre idea that people think it all started with the book [her memoir, Variations Sauvages] and the wolf story, but again I'd been recording for eighteen years prior and it's not that you're great one day and shit the next. You can have phases when you're developing and nothing's ever smooth in the artistic process. The main thing that matters is the overall picture. But you're not great before you go to Deutsche Grammophon, and then you don't play as well as you used to.'

If Grimaud's stature as an artist, however, needed any official recognition then this came, in Britain at least, when she was asked to play at the Last Night of the Proms. How did she find the experience? 'I loved it', she exclaims simply. 'First of all, the Proms has always been one of my favourite festivals. I love the hall. It's my favourite venue in London – I was going to say it doesn't take very much! – but I do think it's a very special place, irrespective of the competition. It feels great on that stage having everyone there and it brings with it a feeling of intense physical well-being. The Last Night was just the same, but more. And of course the effervescence and the rejoicing was a really beautiful thing to be part of. And I thought that the Choral Fantasy was a great choice. In fact the whole programme I liked very much, the contemporary piece worked very well, and the Choral Fantasy is such a perfect piece for that, and seems to embody the right aspiration.'

She lights up when talking about the second half, so often dismissed as little more than a jingoistic knees-up: 'I was so lucky. I joined [Proms director] Roger Wright and his wife in the box, so had a great vantage point. It was funny because I had with me a German friend and an American friend and they were both singing. I never even thought but it was so contagious, and I was nearly hoarse after that. We were all singing and it was just a beautiful kind of patriotism and belief in your values. I had a lot of other friends and family in the arena too and when we met up back stage, everyone was just giddy. It's the coolest thing and even the sceptics had been swept along by it.'  

Grimaud's enthusiasm for the power of music moves me to ask about her childhood and the fact that she once said that music is what kept her on track as a rebellious teenager. Does she see music as having an important role to play in society and can she see herself becoming involved any work to harness its power?

'To be truly honest, I've been involved in some of this. Working with schools with the community, every time I've requested to participate in many of these. I don't think though that music should be a thing on the side that's left to the good will of some motivated people. It should be a central part of the curriculum, as important as Mathematics or Geography or anything else. At first it takes a lot of work but what is unfortunate is that in some peoples' view, if you're not knowledgeable about something then it's not for you. But what's important is simply to feel it; the more you experience, the more you discover it. This is a long term thing: it's not just the case of a summer music camp that will change someone's life, there are many other things to do. You need to have a physical experience of it.'

By Hugo Shirley

Photos © Mat Hennek/DG

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