Renaissance woman Hélène Grimaud is not just a deeply passionate and committed musical artist whose pianistic accomplishments play a central role in her life. She is a woman with multiple talents that extend far beyond the instrument she plays with such poetic expression and peerless technical control. The French artist has established herself as a committed wildlife conservationist, a compassionate human rights activist and as a writer.
Grimaud was born in 1969 in Aix-en-Provence and began her piano studies at the local conservatory with Jacqueline Courtin before going on to work with Pierre Barbizet in Marseille. She was accepted into the Paris Conservatoire at just 13 and won first prize in piano performance a mere three years later. She continued to study with György Sándor and Leon Fleisher until, in 1987, she gave her well-received debut recital in Tokyo. That same year, renowned conductor Daniel Barenboim invited her to perform with the Orchestre de Paris: this marked the launch of Grimaud’s musical career, characterised ever since by concerts with most of the world’s major orchestras and many celebrated conductors.
Between her debut in 1995 with the Berliner Philharmoniker under Claudio Abbado and her first performance with the New York Philharmonic under Kurt Masur in 1999 – just two of many notable musical milestones – Grimaud made a wholly different kind of debut: in upper New York State she established the Wolf Conservation Center.
Her love for the endangered species was sparked by a chance encounter with a wolf in northern Florida; this led to her determination to open an environmental education centre. “To be involved in direct conservation and being able to put animals back where they belong,” she says, “there’s just nothing more fulfilling.” But Grimaud’s engagement doesn’t end there: she is also a member of the organisation Musicians for Human Rights, a worldwide network of musicians and people working in the field of music to promote a culture of human rights and social change.
For most people, establishing and running an environmental organisation or having a flourishing career as a musician would be accomplishment enough. Yet, remarkably, Hélène Grimaud has also found time to pursue writing, publishing three books that have appeared in various languages. Her first, Variations Sauvages, appeared in 2003. It was followed in 2005 by Leçons particulières, and in 2013 by Retour à Salem, both semi-autobiographical novels.
Despite her divided dedication to these multiple passions, it is through Grimaud’s thoughtful and tenderly expressive music-making that she most deeply touches the emotions of audiences. Fortunately, they have been able to enjoy her concerts worldwide, thanks to the extensive tours she undertakes as a soloist and recitalist. She is also an ardent and committed chamber musician who performs frequently at the most prestigious festivals and cultural events with a wide range of musical collaborators, including Sol Gabetta, Rolando Villazón, Jan Vogler, Truls Mørk, Clemens Hagen and the Capuçon brothers. Her prodigious contribution to and impact on the world of classical music were recognised by the French government when she was admitted into the Ordre National de la Légion d’Honneur (France’s highest decoration) at the rank of Chevalier (Knight).
Hélène Grimaud has been an exclusive Deutsche Grammophon artist since 2002. Her recordings have been critically acclaimed and awarded numerous accolades, among them the Cannes Classical Recording of the Year, Choc du Monde de la musique, Diapason d’or, Grand Prix du disque, Record Academy Prize (Tokyo), Midem Classic Award and the Echo Klassik Award.
Her early recordings include Credo and Reflection (both of which feature a number of thematically linked works); a Chopin and Rachmaninov Sonatas disc; a Bartók CD on which she plays the Third Piano Concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra and Pierre Boulez; a Beethoven disc with the Staatskapelle Dresden and Vladimir Jurowski which was chosen as one of history’s greatest classical music albums in the iTunes “Classical Essentials” series; a selection of Bach’s solo and concerto works, in which she directed the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen from the piano; and a DVD release of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra and Claudio Abbado.
In 2010 Grimaud recorded the solo recital album Resonances, showcasing music by Mozart, Berg, Liszt and Bartók. This was followed in 2011 by a disc featuring her readings of Mozart’s Piano Concertos Nos. 19 and 23 as well as a collaboration with singer Mojca Erdmann in the same composer’s Ch’io mi scordi di te?. Her next release, Duo, recorded with cellist Sol Gabetta, won the 2013 Echo Klassik Award for “chamber recording of the year”, and her album of the two Brahms piano concertos, the First recorded with Andris Nelsons and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Second with Nelsons and the Vienna Philharmonic, appeared in September 2013.
This was followed by Water (January 2016), a live recording of performances from tears become… streams become…, the critically-acclaimed large-scale immersive installation at New York’s Park Avenue Armory created by Turner Prize-winning artist Douglas Gordon in collaboration with Grimaud. Water features works by nine composers: Berio, Takemitsu, Fauré, Ravel, Albéniz, Liszt, Janáček, Debussy and Nitin Sawhney, who wrote seven short Water Transitions for the album as well as producing it. April 2017 then saw the release of Perspectives, a two-disc personal selection of highlights from her DG catalogue, including two “encores” – Brahms’s Waltz in A flat and Sgambati’s arrangement of Gluck’s “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” – previously unreleased on CD/via streaming.
Grimaud’s latest album, Memory, was released in September 2018. Exploring music’s ability to bring the past back to life, it comprises a selection of evanescent miniatures by Chopin, Debussy, Satie and Valentin Silvestrov which, in the pianist’s own words, “conjure atmospheres of fragile reflection, a mirage of what was – or what could have been”.
Having opened 2019 by giving a series of performances of the Schumann Piano Concerto with Andris Nelsons and the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester in Leipzig, Hamburg, Paris, Luxembourg, Munich and Vienna, in February she begins a recital tour of Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium featuring repertoire from Memory. Further European dates will follow in May/June. In the meantime, her tour of the US in March/April will focus on performances of Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto and Ravel’s Concerto in G major at venues including the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and New York’s Carnegie Hall.
Highlights of last season include Grimaud’s residency with the Gothenburg Symphony; this began with a chamber recital and performances of the Ravel Piano Concerto, which she also played in Zurich and Vienna in January. She performed Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.4 in Leipzig with Lionel Bringuier and the Gewandhausorchester, in Munich with Valery Gergiev and the Munich Philharmonic and on tour in Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Iceland with the Gothenburg Symphony. In addition, she gave performances in Lucerne, Ludwigshafen and Paris of multimedia concert project Woodlands and beyond…, premiered at the Hamburg Elbphilharmonie in April 2017. The project combines piano works by Romantic and Impressionist composers with images from Woodlands, the latest publication by her partner, fine art photographer Mat Hennek.
Hélène Grimaud is undoubtedly a multi-faceted artist. Her deep dedication to her musical career, both in performances and recordings, is reflected and reciprocally amplified by the scope and depth of her environmental, literary and artistic interests.
Photos © Mat Hennek / DG