“A wrong note that is played out of élan, you hear it differently than one that is played out of fear,”
Her albums aren’t merely proficient tours through the repertoire; they are highly personal explorations that can stand out among dozens of rival performances. And in the concert hall Grimaud can offer surprises, something rarely provided by players who have been processed by the conservatory machine.
“By nine, I was already obsessed,” she remembers, in love with “the pure pleasure and evasion of being at that instrument.” But, rather than spending all her time at the keyboard, she did much of her “practicing” in her head. “Some wonderful pianists practice eight hours a day,” she says. “I was never really that person.”
Chopin, a tempestuous pianist himself, was a musician with whom she felt a kinship. Grimaud, who is left-handed, thought that the Classical greats discriminated against players like her. In their music, the left hand was largely devoted to chords, while the right played the melody. “Chopin opened up the piano for the left hand.”
She also exercised her remarkable ability to prepare without actually playing. Mat Hennek, her current partner, remembers that one day, when he and Grimaud were first dating, they went shopping in Philadelphia and then to a Starbucks. At one point, he recalls, “I said to Hélène, ‘Hélène, you have a concert coming. Did you practice?’ And she said, ‘I played the piece two times in my head.’ ”
She presented her program with intense commitment, sustaining a mood from piece to piece, so that the audience felt pulled into a narrative. Levine, at the Gould Foundation, notes that she “seems so absorbed in the music, so attentive. She has that quality—getting back to Gould—of ekstasis.” Grimaud explains, “A concert must be an emotional event, or who needs it? You can just stay home and listen to your favorite recordings.”