It must be an emotional experience for a gifted, dynamic pianist to approach the heights of the piano repertoire recording Brahms with a talented young maestro and two of the best European orchestras. Helene Grimaud clearly views these concertos as life-changing works, and here we have a serious major release that asks to be the most attractive one of both concertos since Pollini and Abbado, also on DG.
Approaching the 1st Concerto, we soon realize that Grimaud boasts great magnetism. She takes this beast of a concerto with an authoritative technique that leaves no doubts about her control. Every bar has the undisputed mastery that defines the greatest pianists. But what is most striking is her imagination, which defies the common conception that this is a ponderous, rambling concerto. She grabs the ear with phrasing that weaves the most beautiful lines without ever becoming self-conscious or losing her grasp. It's hard to fathom a more perfect marriage, "invincible yet vulnerable", as she put it. Everything is majestic, yet personal to the point of being nearly painful. And the variety she displays is breathtaking, from moments of near stillness in the gorgeous slow movement to the towering force of the finale, which sounds titanic yet gloriously adventurous--has anyone bettered it? At the podium, Andris Nelsons lets Grimaud carry the show, with accompaniment that is never aggressive. He prefers gentle refinement to open drama, which sounds like a bad idea, but it is the perfect compliment to Grimaud. He shares her sensitivity, to be sure, so the Bavarian Radio Symphony never sounds stiff. He conducts with great finesse, choosing sweet lyricism that truly sounds free.
Coming to the 2nd Concerto, we get a very similar approach, only the music is more inspiring and we now have the Vienna Phil. Actually, Grimaud logically views this concerto as more intimate than its predecessor, so this reading is rich, colorful, and always reflective--very autumnal, really. A quick listen makes this reading sound low key and it almost is. There's not much barnstorming. But Grimaud uses reflection as a vehicle to exploit the most captivating emotions. She's as mesmerizing when she phrases with tenderness as when she displays her full powers. She seems to be searching for meaning, using the concerto's nobility to communicate on a level of the deepest sincerity. It's grand and soaring with freedom, yet there's an element of fragility caused by the complete emotional vulnerability. It's hard to describe how gripping she is for those who haven't heard it. Nelsons adds to this feel with conducting that is surprisingly resigned. He sounds natural and fluid, yet he rarely produces sheer excitement. Sometimes it may catch the listener off guard, especially in the 2nd movement where he breathes a quick prayer where one expects blazing triumph (the start of the new theme in D around 4:45). Some will think he goes too far in his refined ecstasy, but what might not work by itself sounds perfect with the volatile Grimaud at the keyboard. I don't hesitate to place this reading with the best from Gilels, Barenboim, and Pollini.
At the end of the day, this is Grimaud's show, and her pianism is unforgettable, transforming these indisputable masterpieces. Other pianists may be more dazzling, but few have been as poetic, much less while still maintaining such astonishing control. Bravo.