Helene Grimaud, Claudio Abbado and much ado over a cadenza

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What goes on between a conductor and soloist in the give-and-take of developing a concerto performance usually goes on offstage. But a nuanced New Yorker profile last week of the quirky French pianist Hélène Grimaud ended with the story of her recent falling out with Claudio Abbado over what cadenza should be included for a new recording of two Mozart concertos. The New York Times immediately sensationalized the spat.

The outcome of the conflict was that the original sessions, taped in Bologna with Abbado’s wondrous Orchestra Mozart, remain in the can. Grimaud decamped to Munich and re-recorded the concertos, Nos. 19 and 23, leading them herself from keyboard, with a chamber orchestra of the Bavarian Radio. That Deutsche Grammophon CD has been released this week. It’s engaging, a little impulsive and also missing a certain spark.

But tongues wag. Did a revered Italian maestro arrogantly pull rank on a junior? Was this sexist? Who’s prerogative is the cadenza or anything else in a concerto collaboration?

There are no simple answers, and no right and wrong, as this unfortunate incident attests.


Grimaud -- who has been a frequent guest with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and is a soloist with whom Esa-Pekka Salonen regularly works and records -– has explained that she didn’t find Mozart’s original cadenza in the 23rd Concerto in A-Major as interesting as a more lavish one from the 20th century by Ferruccio Busoni. Abbado is both a Modernist (and fine Busonian when he wants to be), as well as a purist who has been making flawlessly illuminating recordings of Mozart of late, full of striking detail. He keeps his Mozart unsullied. The big solo cadenza near the end of a concerto in Mozart’s day was intended to be improvised, and Mozart was supposed to have been a great improviser. Now and then, as in this lyrical A-Major Concerto, he jotted down the improvisation afterward. Other pianists and composers over the centuries have supplied their own. Or not.

Normally, the cadenza is the soloist’s choice. But how soloists and conductors operate is different in every case, and both musical and personal dynamics are involved.

Abbado’s recordings of Mozart symphonies and concertos and operas have sounded fresh and revelatory through cleansing. He removes all 19th and early 20th century Romantic excess from the 18th century style the way a Modernist Milanese architect might do in restoring a wondrous building.

Grimaud likes to present herself as more in the messy moment, although too much has been made of her unconventionality. She’s spontaneous, but she’s not extreme and never nuts. The Busoni cadenza is a doozy, and she shows it suits her on the CD.

Ultimately, though, the strongest interpretive statement is not the Busoni cadenza, but Grimaud’s quite slow tempo of the middle movement of the A-Major concerto. She makes it glow. The orchestra and she move as one.

There is something to be said for this kind of accommodating give-and-take chamber music approach to concertos. Perhaps Grimaud was thinking of such a Middle Way when she said in an interview that accompanies the press release of the CD that playing Mozart can be “a great exercise in Buddhistic values.”

And, yet, the classic concerto wasn’t necessarily a love-fest or an expression of enlightened Buddhism. It could stand for a drama between the individual and society. Audiences wanted a little excitement, a battle between wills, surprise. Grimaud’s Mozart, for all its impetuosity, stays so firmly on track that it’s ultimately predictable.

Four years ago, the normally cool Salonen reportedly lost his temper during a recording session of Schoenberg’s Violin Concerto in Sweden with Hilary Hahn. A soloist insisted on violin fireworks, while a conductor with a flair for structural illumination was looking at a bigger, integrated musical picture. The CD, also on DG, came out in 2008, and it is a terrific performance -- a tense interaction of solo fireworks and orchestra form ideal for tense music -- It became the first, and still only, hit recording of a difficult but great concerto far too seldom heard.

Grimaud, who is known for her daring, and Salonen work well together. She and Abbado used to work well together. I would like to hear what was left behind of the Mozartean butting of heads in Bologna. The really daring thing would be for DG to release both versions of these concertos, with and without Abbado.


Helene Grimaud, Claudio Abbado’s music spat goes public

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-- Mark Swed