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. 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 Award.
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 recently 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). She was presented with the award at a ceremony in Aix-en-Provence on 22 March 2016.
After appearances at the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival and the Ruhr Piano Festival in July, Grimaud will begin the 2017-18 season in Sweden, as the Gothenburg Symphony’s Artist in Residence, with a chamber recital and performances of the Ravel Piano Concerto, a work she will also play in Zurich and Vienna in January. Other highlights include concerts featuring Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto in, among other cities, Munich with Valery Gergiev and the Munich Philharmonic, on tour in Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Iceland with the Gothenburg Symphony, and in Philadelphia with Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra, and performances this autumn in Lucerne, Ludwigshafen and Paris of a multimedia concert project, Woodlands and beyond…, which combines piano works by Romantic and Impressionist composers with images from Woodlands, the latest publication by her partner, fine art photographer Mat Hennek. This was premiered at the Hamburg Elbphilharmonie in April 2017.
Performance highlights of recent years include two collaborations with the Turner Prize-winning artist Douglas Gordon – tears become… streams become…, a large-scale immersive installation at New York’s Park Avenue Armory, and Neck of the Woods, a piece devised for the Manchester International Festival. During the 2016-17 season Grimaud made a series of European appearances with Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Rotterdam Philharmonic; performed concertos by Brahms and Ravel in the US and Australia; gave recitals in Germany and Switzerland with cellist Sol Gabetta; and performed music from her 2016 album, Water, in the US and Europe, as well as at a number of venues in South Korea and China.
Hélène Grimaud has been an exclusive Deutsche Grammophon artist since 2002. Her most recent album, Perspectives (April 2017), a two-disc personal selection of highlights from her DG catalogue, includes 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. Water (January 2016) is a live recording of the performances from tears become… streams become… with 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. Classicalite called the release “an astonishing work of piano majesty that is both thought-provoking and spiritually unsettling”, while Gramophone hailed Grimaud’s ability to interpret “a multitude of styles with passionate authority”. Water was the follow-up to the September 2013 release of her album of the two Brahms piano concertos, the First recorded with Andris Nelsons and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Second with Nelsons and the Vienna Philharmonic. Limelight magazine called it an “utterly remarkable, inspired and inspiring recording”.
Duo, the album she recorded with cellist Sol Gabetta just prior to the Brahms concertos, won the 2013 ECHO Award for “chamber recording of the year”. Previous releases include her readings of Mozart’s Piano Concertos Nos. 19 and 23 on a 2011 disc which also featured a collaboration with singer Mojca Erdmann in the same composer’s Ch’io mi scordi di te?. Grimaud’s 2010 release, the solo recital album Resonances, showcased music by Mozart, Berg, Liszt and Bartók, while her other DG recordings include a selection of Bach’s solo and concerto works, in which she directed the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen from the piano; 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; Reflection and Credo(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; and a DVD release of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra and Claudio Abbado.
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 and literary pursuits.
Official website: www.helenegrimaud.com
Photos © Mat Hennek / DG