Pianist lets Schumann work be gigantic

February 02, 1996|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Helene Grimaud is a beautiful young woman. When she came out to perform the Schumann Concerto with David Zinman and the Baltimore Symphony in Meyerhoff Hall last night, however, she was dressed like a waiter who had neglected to put on a tie.

One mentions this only because her remarkable and original performance of the Schumann also demonstrated that she cares not a whit about superficial beauty.

In days of yore, the Schumann was known as a "Lady's Concerto." Although that sobriquet is no longer used, the piece is still customarily performed in the manner it implies -- as if it were pretty, untroubled polished music. Played that way, it sounds very little like Schumann, whose music typically alternates restlessly between the dreamy and the explosively dramatic.

What Grimaud did was to let Schumann be Schumann. Her conception was gigantic, she let the music's shifts in mood swing widely and she endowed the music with note-to-note tensile strength. The performance made one understand the debt owed Schumann by the young Brahms in his stormy First Concerto.

And in an age in which cosmetically perfected recordings have made musicians reluctant to take chances, it was a pleasure to hear a pianist unafraid to take risks for the sake of emotional and musical truth. This brilliantly equipped pianist made more mistakes than usual, but it was the occasion for as fiercely honest and affecting a Schumann Concerto as one is likely to hear. Most pianists make the work sound like the equivalent of a Jane Austen novel, Grimaud made it sound like one by Emily Bronte.

If Zinman and the BSO did not give the pianist their usual tailored-to-near perfection accompaniment, that is probably because most of the rehearsal time was spent on the music Leonard Bernstein extracted from his ballets, "Facsimile" and "On the Town," which the conductor and orchestra will record this weekend. And it was time well spent: Both suites were played with precision of ensemble -- something particularly impressive in the case of the rarely performed "Facsimile" -- as well as with energy and swaggering freedom.

The program will be repeated tonight at 8:15.

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