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Mozart: Piano Sonata No. 8 in A minor, K. 310
Berg: Piano Sonata, Op. 1
Liszt: Piano Sonata in B minor
Bartok: Six Romanian Folk Dances
Helene Grimaud, piano

Review By Joe Milicia


  The "resonances" of Helene Grimaud's recent CD (and of her recitals which included this program) are between what at first seem to be exceedingly different works by Mozart, Berg, Liszt, and Bartok. To be sure, all four men were at certain times in their lives members of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, though Grimaud acknowledges that "Bartok would have strongly resisted this act of appropriation." Perhaps more significantly, Mozart's Sonata in A minor is often claimed to be one of his most intensely personal creations, and both the Liszt and the Berg sonatas downright exemplify the words "intensely personal." (They are also both grounded in B minor, though the Berg wanders very far indeed from the home key.) Grimaud finds all three works "operatic" in their passionate outpourings, and claims that Mozart is "in terms of his period... an extremist in matters of expression." The sonata "teems with things that were to come later; and it speaks a subjective language," according to her booklet essay.

It is quite fascinating to hear the Berg Sonata appear right after the Mozart (after a decent pause, of course) fascinating because one seems practically to lead into the other! This is not because Grimaud plays the Mozart as if it were Berg, or tries to give the Berg a Mozartian treatment if indeed either approach is even imaginable. But the spirit of Beethoven is certainly hovering over her reading of the Mozart, and she makes the Berg (which is still in sonata form, however complexly reimagined). This is a late-Romantic piece rather than a jagged Expressionistic one. Moreover, the pieces are brought together by a distinctive fluidity in Grimaud's playing nothing "dry" in either her technique or her temperament, still less anything "brittle" or "spiky." Her piano sound is more pearl than diamond. And yet there is often a headlong movement practically a tumbling forward, though not in an unmusical rushed way. One hears this quality equally in the opening movement of the Mozart (not exactly the specified Allegro maestoso more con spirito, if not con fuoco), in the agitated parts of the Berg, and in the Allegro energico sections of the Liszt Sonata, i.e., the first fast passage and the later fugue.

It is this fluidity, along with her ability to be both headlong and reposeful, that makes Grimaud's reading of the Liszt Sonata so compelling, and so fitting a follow-up to the Mozart and Berg, though it's of course a sprawling work rather than compact like the others. Grimaud does not give a hyper-Romantic performance, nor is she notably restrained. Her formidable technique makes it possible for her to treat the work, seemingly effortlessly, as "a music drama guided by the possibilities of the piano, a sonata that is as theatrical as a sonata can be," in her words.

As for the Bartok, I couldn't hear much in the way of "resonances," even between the two Hungarians, but the brief Romanian Dances are a refreshingly light finale after all that intensity. Grimaud's performance ts thoughtful and propulsive at once. And DG's capture of all the works on the program is superb, filling the listening space with the clear, rich presence of her piano sound resonant indeed.





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