Of budding young piano virtuosos there is surely no shortage. The number of promising performers who understand how to program creatively, however, remains distressingly small. Hélène Grimaud’s stunning Thursday (Dec. 1) recital for the La Jolla Music Society could easily serve as a master class in insightful programming.Her recital’s lengthy first half offered eight shorter works by different composers all related to the theme of water. Performed with minimal breaks and no applause between each work, Grimaud took us on an engaging journey, fueled by her astounding technique and daring musical insight. From recent composers such as Luciano Berio and Toru Takemitsu to the expected Impressionists Debussy and Ravel to Isaac Albéniz and Leoŝ Janáček, Grimaud exalted in their stylistic contrasts and invited her listeners to discover unexpected connections.
At the center of her water journey, Grimaud’s ecstatic account of Ravel’s “Jeux d’eau” created a sonic tsunami of turbulent octaves. Her crystalline clarity of line and structure in this rhapsodic tone poem, which she played with a keen sense of improvisatory ardor, amazed me at every turn. In the less explosive but equally ebullient “Alméria” by Isaac Albéniz, Grimaud continued her air of abandon spinning out the composer’s effusive melodies propelled by Iberian dance rhythms.
In Toru Takemitsu’s “Rain Tree Sketch II,” Grimaud coaxed a rapturous shimmer from the piano’s upper range, deftly suspending the work’s dense bell-like clusters in this elegant piece dedicated to the memory of another great colorist of the last century, Olivier Messaien. Janáček’s wistful, mysterious suite In the Mists deserves much greater attention, and even though Grimaud played only the first of its four delectable movements, she easily unlocked its tempestuous emotional language.
From the 19th century, Grimaud offered Gabriel Fauré’s Barcarolle No. 5 in F-sharp Minor, Op. 66, a far more impetuous and harmonically daring piece than the typical lilting Venetian barcarole of that period. In Grimaud’s hands, Franz Liszt’s evergreen “Les jeux d’eau à la Villa d’Este” proved powerfully evocative and resplendent.
She completed her water journey with a large-scaled, even at times thunderous “La cathédrale engloutie” by Claude Dubussy. She made us erase that pastel watercolor of a misty city rising from beneath the gentle waves that most performers conjure and gave us instead a majestic castle of awe-inspiring proportions rising in astonishing splendor.
The ample Sherwood Auditorium audience rose in hearty applause at the completion of Grimaud’s opening half of the recital, something that only occasionally happens at the end of a recital. They clearly affirmed the rare journey they had just experienced!
When I saw that Grimaud had programmed a Brahms Sonata for her program’s second half, I was more than a little dubious. But Brahms’ Piano Sonata in F-sharp Minor, Op. 2, is no serene, classically structured sonata, but rather a young composer’s hot-blooded appeal for attention. Grimaud’s assertive, athletic approach released the composer’s youthful ardor with uncompromising brio.
Her sole encore was a ravishing “Étude-tableau,” Op. 33, No. 2, by Sergei Rachmaninoff.