‘Rousing memory through non-rational means’: Pianist Hélène Grimaud visits Stanford

Nov. 8, 2022, 10:10 p.m.

Stanford Live welcomed French classical pianist Hélène Grimaud to Bing Concert Hall on Sunday. The 53-year-old musician is very much a “Renaissance woman,” having established herself outside of her craft as a dedicated human rights activist, writer and wildlife conservationist who established the Wolf Conservation Center in Salem, New York.

Grimaud showcased impeccable technique with a spotless performance. Her use of the damper pedal was deliberate yet subtle — she seemed to breathe with the pedal instead of pressing it. Her piercing, precise tone in the upper register was accompanied by clarity in the lower register; the result was a mesmerizing dance between higher and lower chords. 

What was most noticeable about Grimaud’s performance was her purposeful ordering of her repertoire. There were no concrete breaks between pieces: instead, she used short excerpts or variations of one piece to ease the audience into the next one. She commenced her performance with a gentle rendition of Ukrainian composer Valentyn Silvestrov’s first known work, the Bagatelle Op. 1 No. 1. Each note was a light kiss on the hall’s acoustics. 

However, after a few notes, she tenderly transitioned into the classic Debussy piece Arabesque No. 1. Grimaud followed with other popular Debussy pieces that even the uninitiated would recognize, including “Clair de Lune” and “Reverie.” 

The entirety of the first half was composed of works similar in color and texture. In the concert’s program, Grimaud explained this purposeful choice as an effort to “rouse memory through non-rational means.” She selected pieces that had a “simplicity to them” in order to “conjure atmospheres of fragile reflection.” 

Programming pieces in this way gave her performance an ethereal quality: even though she resurrected the same sonorities later on in the program, Grimaud’s varying interpretations illustrated that memories are malleable. In this exploration of how “music can bring the past back to life,” I found Grimaud’s choices to imply that how we reflect on certain events varies with the stage of life that we find ourselves in. As a listener, I found this very touching and meaningful. We can reflect on the same instant with regret or with rose-tinted glasses: the real power lies in how we learn from those moments. 

Throughout the first half of the performance, Grimaud’s changes in dynamic and tempo were significant but almost unnoticeable. It was extremely difficult to believe that she had begun the afternoon’s performance with such tentativeness then later escalated to climactic moments that were forte and presto. 

However, after the intermission, Grimaud adopted an energy that was much more striking. She performed Robert Schumann’s “Kreisleriana,” an eccentric cycle of eight “fantasy” pieces that describe the romance between the fictional character Johannes Kreisler and his love interest. The piece is meant to be a reflection of Schumman’s own romantic life, as well as his own spiral into “insanity” that allowed him to compose all of “Kreisleriana” in just four days in 1838. 

Grimaud embodied the energetic and slightly unhinged persona required to interpret “Kreisleriana” from the first two notes of the opening movement, “Äußerst bewegt” (“Extremely animated”). She played the first two notes of the ascending D minor scale with purpose, building the suspense with layered crescendos. Her execution of repeating variations throughout the pieces echoed the voices in the mad composer’s head making their way to the surface of his composition. Yet throughout these changes, Grimaud’s technical control remained precise, her nimble fingers gliding across the keys like a ballerina twirling in dance. 

Ultimately, Grimaud gave a transfixing performance that was reflective of a feminine and gentle, yet strong and confident persona that the audience glimpsed from her when she first walked on stage. The two halves of her performance, both before and after the intermission, were memorable in different ways. She played delicately where needed without being timid; she played with strength and sound without being clumsy or garish. Ultimately, her performance demonstrated the power of a single memory to pause time and suspend us in a single, transfixing moment. 

Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective thoughts, opinions and critiques.

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article indicated erroneously that Grimaud had repeated works on Sunday’s program. The Daily regrets this error.

Aya Aziz ’25 is a Vol. 264 beat reporter who covers Stanford Medicine related news. She was previously a Stanford Live Fellow and covered classical music performances on campus in Vol. 262. She has also worked as a photographer for the Photo/Video team and as a writer for the Grind and Arts and Life. She is a Junior from Visalia, CA majoring in Human Biology. Her writing and photography explore medicine, scientific research, classical music, and art.

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