Here we are in the middle of a drought, and French pianist Hélène Grimaud brings us a recital of water, water everywhere, with plenty for her enraptured audience to drink.
The first half of her program at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Tuesday night offered a refreshing selection of aqueous masterpieces by Berio, Takemitsu, Ravel, Liszt and others that explored water as memorial, sensation, mystery and spiritual transcendence. Apparently, Grimaud is haunted by waters.
Grimaud opened with Berio’s 1965 “Wasserklavier,” setting a quiet mood. (The elusively tonal piece is played mostly pianissimo.) That led directly into Takemitsu’s “Rain Tree Sketch II — In Memoriam Olivier Messiaen,” with the pianist gently characterizing its slow moving chromatic chords, creating a dreamily impressionistic atmosphere.
As she did throughout the night, Grimaud continued with only the briefest of pauses, turning next to Fauré's technically daunting, harmonically robust Barcarolle No. 5 in F-sharp minor, composed in 1894, performed with just the right amount of sea-air pungency.
Grimaud’s effortless-seeming cross-hand technique and propulsive rhythmic precision and dynamics in Ravel’s 1901 “Jeux d’eau” (“Play of the Water”) kept the fountains flowing delightfully. The score is dedicated to Fauré, Ravel’s teacher, but Liszt is the actual forerunner of his impressionistic masterwork. In Liszt’s 1877 “Les Jeux d’eau à la Villa d’Este,” the granddaddy of all pianistic water pieces, Grimaud transformed the tactile sensations of water into something more mystical. The pianist’s finely judged use of tremolos (rapid hand movements creating the effect of fingers themselves strumming the piano’s strings) helped sustain the illusion that the piano is not a percussive instrument.
The pianist’s seductive rendition of “Almería” from Albéniz’s piano suite “Iberia” came between the Ravel and Liszt, its fandango-style dance background offering a variety of texture and Andalusian expanse. And in the inward-looking Andante movement from Janá¿ek’s “In the Mists” suite (1912), Grimaud elicited a veiled melancholy.
Grimaud concluded the recital’s first half with Debussy’s magisterial prelude “La Cathédrale Engloutie” (“The Sunken Cathedral”), inspired by a Breton legend of a cathedral that periodically rises from the ocean only to recede back into its watery grave. Her precise pedaling and exquisite control of tempo lent a ghostly grandeur to Debussy’s mysterious conception.
By this time, the Disney Hall audience seemed immersed in a meditative state of intense concentration — a tribute to the artist’s work.
After intermission, Grimaud returned with Brahms’ youthful Piano Sonata No. 2 in F-sharp minor (actually his first score), composed when he was just 19. It may have seemed a programmatic sea change, but Grimaud linked the piece to what came before with persuasive, Lisztian abandon.
Responding to enthusiastic applause, Grimaud performed two encores by Debussy: “Pour les Arpèges Composés,” a brilliant Liszt-like study of arpeggios, delicately rendered, and “Poissons d’Or” (“Goldfish”), with Grimaud bathing the audience one last time in floating melodies and fluid arpeggios.