Helene Grimaud plays the structure of the piece. In this she is very unusual. In our music lessons, we learned about phrases--how that arc over some notes means to begin anew, to rise in strength, then fall back again. And maybe even how larger phrases contain smaller ones. And we remember how difficult it was to play the phrases, especially when they contained other ones. Grimaud's phrasing is incomparable. At every moment there are several phrases going: the immediate one, and all the levels above it. She tells us not only what is now, but what is ending and what is to come. Her playing has the extremely rare quality of anticipation, so that even in pieces new to us, we feel them developing, and in familiar pieces we revel in the hints and beginnings of the next idea. Sometimes the phrases are borne by different voices, and it can seem that more than one person is playing, so clear is Grimaud's articulation. She has said that she practices mainly by studying the score. This must be the secret of her music's almost incredible three-dimensionality.
In the great Chopin sonata on this record, Helene Grimaud combines her structural understanding with emotional strength and universality to achieve an interpretation that to me is substantially new and compelling. As she says in the notes, the sonata is about death, and its first movement, which she says is the heart of the work, "reflects the revolt and supplications of a tragic struggle against hopeless destiny". This seems to me exactly how she plays it. The whole movement--the phrase of the whole--is played with a driving, passionate intensity, never letting up, never denying, but still containing and letting breathe the beautiful "supplication" and noble "revolt" sub-phrases that contrast with death's relentlessly returning tocsin. The overall structure is constantly present and reinforced. Grimaud never indulges in idiosyncrasy or feeling for its own sake; she seems intent on letting the composer's idea and purpose come through, and does so using her enormous understanding and expressive power, aided, I must say, by the fabulous sound of her piano.
The rest of the sonata is equally rewarding. I would just mention how in the "Funeral March" movement, the tempo and dynamics of the march sections are almost utterly steady--surprisingly, one taps one's foot--removing all personal sentiment, as though we are seeing an historical black-and-white film. The sense of distance is complemented by the sweet, ethereal passages that interweave the march; Grimaud plays them limpidly and wonderfully slowly.
The other sonata on this disc, Rachmaninov's 2nd, is new to me and I am still "learning it" from the pianist. But her playing displays the same structural insight, anticipation, and voicing that I have mentioned, underlying her characteristically beautiful expression both in the strong passages and the gentle ones. I have all of her CDs, and a very special quality, evident here, is Grimaud's ability to be interesting wherever she is in a piece. There are no dead spots or contentless transitions: every passage always has something going on that holds interest, even fascination. In a sense she is a miniaturist in her immediate playing--I think that is the result of her deep grasp of what the piece, at every point, is saying.
The Berceuse in D flat and Barcarolle in F sharp, familiar to every listener, complete this program of Helene Grimaud's. They are beautifully rendered--the Berceuse with exceptional tenderness, the Barcarolle in all its unique originality. I give this recording five stars as a marvelous example of the work of a still relatively unknown pianist of exceptional quality whose approach and understanding and expressive power will, I believe, soon bring her recognition as one of the greatest pianists.