Pianist Helene Grimaud reunites three great friends

Album cover
On her new recording, "Reflection," pianist Helene Grimaud carefully considers the music of Robert and Clara Schumann and their faithful friend, Johannes Brahms.
Album cover

Johannes Brahms was just 20 years old on Sept. 30, 1853 when he knocked on the door of a house in Dusseldorf. Not just any house--it belonged to Robert and Clara Schumann. They invited him in to play the piano for them. The next day, in his diary, Robert Schumann wrote one line: "Visit by Brahms--a genius!"

On her new recording, "Reflection," French pianist Helene Grimaud digs into the complex, special relationship that developed among these three composers and the way it's reflected in their music.

The new release opens with one of the most popular piano concertos of all time, Robert Schumann's Piano Concerto in A minor. Clara Schumann premiered the work in Dresden in 1845 with the Hofkapelle. Grimaud recorded her performance with the same Dresden orchestra (now called the Staatskapelle). The recording date was Sept. 12, 2005, which happened to be the Schumanns' 165th wedding anniversary.

While many concertos revolve around the virtuosity of the soloist, the heart of this one is its lyrical, poetic nature. Helene Grimaud is an astute performer, finding and focusing on the passionate elements of the work without making it too sentimental. It's tempting to over-emphasize Robert Schumann's deep feelings for his wife Clara in the first movement, which he titled, "Affettuoso," meaning "with feeling." Grimaud gives this memorable melody all she has, weaving in and out of the rolling chords as the orchestra echoes variations of that melody.

Before their marriage, Robert and Clara Schumann started a joint notebook that included poems they later set to music. To Clara's surprise, a prominent reviewer praised a number of her settings of poems by Friedrich Ruckert. On this recording, Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter and Helene Grimaud, performing together for the first time, play three of Clara's love songs. My favorite is the one Clara gave to Robert as a Christmas gift in 1840, titled "Am Strande" or "On the Shore." Helene Grimaud sets the scene with rippling arpeggios; von Otter's expansive vocal range and vivid expressions punctuate this story of two lovers separated by the vast ocean.

The first time Helene Grimaud heard a work by Brahms she sensed an immediate connection, feeling as if his music had been written just for her. That powerful bond is multiplied by two when Norwegian cellist Truls Mork joins her in the Cello Sonata No. 1.

The way Grimaud sees it, "Brahms composes the way a sublime shooting star writes its dizzying arc.... He is bound to nothing, and answers to no demand."

The more I listen to this sonata, the more I find myself cast under that same dizzying spell. As the first movement comes to a close, Grimaud and Mork's performance is so riveting I feel the composer's pain as his heart aches for the woman he cannot have, Clara Schumann.

On her new recording, "Reflection," Helene Grimaud carefully considers the music of Robert and Clara Schumann and their faithful friend, Johannes Brahms. She explores how their unique relationship resonates in their music, and through her heart-felt performance she gives us every reason to explore that intimate connection as well.

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