Los Angeles Music Review: HÉLÈNE GRIMAUD PLAYS BRAHMS (LA Phil at Walt Disney Concert Hall)

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by Tony Frankel on February 26, 2017

in Music,Theater-Los Angeles


Under guest conductor James Gaffigan’s assured leadership, the Los Angeles Philharmonic brought a fuller and more vibrant sound to two very familiar works: Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé Suite No. 2, which was a dazzling experience, and Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 with Hélène Grimaud soloing. And while it’s difficult to describe, or even categorize, the world premiere of James Matheson’s 11-minute Unchained was given the same treatment. This outstanding, exciting program plays through Sunday.

Grimaud recorded Brahm’s second piano concerto in 2013 with the Wiener Philharmoniker, and her passion and connection with the score are very clear on this CD. I’m happy to report those same qualities imbued her performance last night of one of the most immense, symphonic concertos in the repertoire. Powerful and emotional, but controlled and thoughtful, she was positively rapturous. Having seen the Second on two previous occasions—Bronfman and Ax—I must say this was my favorite owing to Ms. Grimaud’s lightness and crisp articulation. I’ve never heard soloist and orchestra compliment each other quite so well; the echo between reeds and piano was especially effective. While her interpretation dripped with Romanticism, it was the precise, intellectual rendering of the final movement that blew me away; here, her technique flourished as she executed the staccato with a piercing clarity.

Technically, Grimaud is extraordinary. She smoothly negotiates the difficult hand-crossings and sweeps through the movement’s forests of chunky chords and finger-numbing trills. Similar effortlessness occurs during the notorious pianissimo octaves and the finale’s coda. Most remarkable was that she seemed to often give equal weight to both hands; the melody was often at the same volume as the left hand accompaniment, but it never overwhelmed her coloring (Grimaud has chromesthesia, or sound-to-color synesthesia, a type of synesthesia in which heard sounds automatically and involuntarily evoke an experience of color).

Again, LA Phil soloists showcased their formidable talents: principal cellist Robert deMaine exquisitely projected emotion and volume in the third movement’s top and close; and on horns, Andrew Bain perfectly set the mood with the opening theme and Amy Jo Rhine kept it sweet and articulate on other passages.

The performance reminded me that Brahms was the real star here, and that is the highest compliment I can give activist, conservationist and writer Grimaud.

In 1909, impresario Serge Diaghilev commissioned Maurice Ravel to write a score for a new ballet which would be based on the ancient Greek tale of Daphne and Chloe. At nearly an hour, the three-part ballet, one of Ravel’s most voluptuous, would become his longest work. Characterized by the quintessentially Ravelian union of vigorous rhythmic diversity, motoric energy, and refined lyricism, this is the ideal composition to see live at Disney Hall.

Soon after the ballet’s premiere, Ravel published two concert suites derived from the original score; last night’s program contained the far more frequently performed Suite No. 2, a symphonic fragment taken from the Third Scene of the ballet, consisting of “Lever du jour” (“Daybreak”), “Pantomime,” and “Danse generale.” Played without a break, LA Phil highlighted every thread in Ravel’s luscious tapestry of sound. As with a lapidist who cuts, polishes, and engraves precious stones, Ravel created sparklingly brilliant orchestrations, a perfectly kaleidoscopic score to showcase all the players, but there was a standout: Not since he replaced Julien Beaudiment in 2015 have I heard Principal Flutist Denis Bouriakov better his predecessor–until now; he had amazing breath control and commanded the long lyrical lines with nuance and imagination, and he flawlessly executed the running scales. Also notable were Boris Allakhverdyan (clarinet) and Sarah Jackson (piccolo) but all the reeds were exemplary. Dressed in tails with long vest and oversized cuffs, the stubbled Gaffigan will never be forgotten for this blazing-hot Ravel.

If there is a way to name the style of American composer James Matheson, someone’s going to have to come up with something better than “modern music.” His work has been performed three times at Disney Hall, but Unchained is the LA Phil’s first full commission (his Violin Concerto was co-commissioned). It’s always exciting to hear a world premiere, but it is not exciting to describe this fun but unmemorable piece. It’s not a tone poem. It’s not minimalism. There are no canons. There is what seemed like a 5-note leitmotif, but it is only used in one section. There are some interesting sonic effects done with string slapping, muted trumpets, and a steel drum, and I was fascinated by flutes and oboes orchestrated like a string quartet. The results were alternately insistent, quiet, and violent–as if something sinister was encroaching on us.

During a pre-talk, the composer told a vague story about a black man who he befriended, but the relationship became contentious. Unrelated to that, the man was later jailed and then ended up in a mental health facility after 17 years in custody; their friendship renewed, the man is being released tomorrow. It is the specter of the criminal justice system that was on Matheson’s mind when he was composing this piece. But instead of a story, we get thoughts and piecemeal snippets that create visual images. As such, Unchained sounds more like fragments from a film score filtered through John Williams. Without a movie, however, it just felt like an experiment.

photos of Hélène Grimaud courtesy of helenegrimaud.com
photo of James Gaffigan courtesy of LA Phil
Daphne and Chloe
 painting (1817) by Louis Hersent

Los Angeles Philharmonic
James Gaffigan, conductor
Hélène Grimaud, piano
Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2
Ravel Daphnis and Chloé, Suite N0. 2
Matheson Unchained (World Premiere)
Walt Disney Concert Hall, 135 North Grand Avenue
ends on February 26, 2017
for tickets, call 323.850.2000 or visit LA Phil

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