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A personal view why I dislike these recordings
on 13 August 2017
ROYAL GREETINGS FROM PLANET NEPTUNE TO ALL BRAHMS ENTHUSIASTS ON PLANET EARTH:
This is Helene Grimaud's second recording of the Brahms First Concerto, her first having being made for Erato with Kurt Sanderling conducting the Berlin Staatskapelle. Like this one, that was a live recording, and a thoughtful one too. I found her habit of playing the left hand before the right in the Sanderling version somewhat irritating, though it was not excessively intrusive, and that recording was certainly a significant artistic statement from a pianist who has made some fine records (her recording of Beethoven's Op. 101 sonata on DG is one of the most remarkable versions I have heard, though the account of the Fifth Concerto with which it is coupled seems to me nothing special and could have benefited from more attention by the pianist to Beethoven's precise rhythmic notation).
Unfortunately, this left-hand-before-right mannerism has now become a knee-jerk reaction for Grimaud every time she approaches an expressive moment that she wants to emphasise, and her constant reliance on the same device can be maddeningly irritating for listeners if, like me, they prefer piano music played with the hands in alignment. For me, the incessant use of this mannerism is an irritant comparable to listening to someone talking who is so incapable of disciplining their speech that they insert unnecessary words ("well, I was, like, sort of listening to this CD, you know, and I found it, like, kind of difficult to listen to, you know what I mean?")
Admittedly, splitting the hands was an accepted expressive device in the nineteenth century, though it was already being criticised as a bad habit by early in the twentieth century. However, in the nineteenth century the device was being used within the context of a wide range of other expressive pianistic devices, and unless a modern pianist intends to play in a historically-informed manner that seeks to restore all the other pianistic characteristics of that era too, the left-hand-before-right habit in isolation is an anachronism these days. Alfred Brendel has discussed the issue in several of his articles, writing in 1976 of "indiscriminate and tasteless use" of the left-before-right device, and acknowledging that although its employment is legitimate for occasional emphasis, "used automatically and excessively, however, these expressive devices lose their charm and defeat their own purpose".
In Grimaud's DG recording of the Two Rhapsodies Op. 79, scarcely a single melody note in the right hand is aligned with the bass; the playing is totally indisciplined. The mannerism is not as pronounced in this new recording of the Brahms First Concerto with Andris Nelsons as it was in those Op. 79 performances, and there are many places where one is aware that Grimaud has thought even more deeply about the concerto since recording the work with Sanderling, but I find the knee-jerk 'expressive' mannerism so wearying that the performance is ruined.
If you are as allergic to this device as I am, try to sample the passage at 18:00 in the first movement before buying. Here the piano is playing alone, recapitulating the second subject, and it is one of the supremely moving passages in the movement, where the music comes to rest after the uproar of the development section, with a sense of having survived an onslaught. By playing with pianistic discipline (which intensifies the expressive effect, and in no way limits it), pianists such as Arrau or Gilels achieve genuine nobility of utterance; by comparison, Grimaud offers us only schoolgirl-style gushing.
I had hoped that her recording of the Second Concerto might offer some respite from the mannerism because it is a studio product rather than a live performance, and therefore created in a very different environment. However the same habit was in evidence here too, and I stopped listening after ten minutes as it was just too irritating to hear the hands constantly out of alignment.
While acknowledging that this negative response is just my personal view, and that I am in a minority, I thought I'd share it as a warning to listeners who may find Grimaud's mannerism equally tiresome. Read the other favourable reviews and you'll find that this 2CD set is widely admired - and in many passages I can understand why. Grimaud is in total control of those demanding keyboard parts; nevertheless, she is not in control of her facile knee-jerk mannerism, and for me it debases the music.