Hélène Grimaud's "Water" Expands Language of Classical Piano Recital

In recent years, there have been valiant attempts to revive the tired format of the classical piano recital. You know, the one where the audience sits in reverent hush while soloists, clad in evening dress, display how fast their fingers can move up and down the keyboard and how loud they can play.

In recent New York events, both Russian-German pianist Igor Levin and established virtuoso Evgeny Kissin have tried to present works, both known and unknown, in interesting and innovative ways. Levin played the Bach Goldberg Variations after asking the audience to meditate in silence for half an hour while his automated platform glided to center stage. Kissin mixed accounts of little-known works by 20th century Jewish composers with his own declamations of Yiddish poetry.

Add to the mix French-born pianist Hélène Grimaud whose new album, "Water" to be issued Feb. 5 by Deutsche Grammaphon, draws on a recital she gave at New York's Park Avenue Armory in December 2014 (the same venue as that chosen by Levin).

In that event, in which she collaborated with artist Douglas Gordon, Grimaud presented a collection of works, mostly late 19th and early 20th century, connected to the theme of water. The hall was slowly transformed as she played by flooding its vast floor to create what Gordon described as an endless "field of water" completely surrounding the piano with Grimaud at its center.

In this album, we do not have the benefit of that visual and sensory experience and must fall back on the music of nine composers, linked by "transitions" - short bursts of music or sound provided by album producer and composer Nitin Sawney. These bridges or transitions draw on various musical cultures and traditions. I don't know that they add much - but they do somehow wield the disparate pieces together.

Grimaud seems tired of just playing music and now aims much higher. The goal of this collection, we're told, is to use the music to "highlight humanity's dependence on our planet's most precious resource." It's a noble goal - but I didn't quite get how the late Romanticism of Faure and Albeniz, the "impressionism" of Ravel and Debussy and the evocative sonic language of Janacek, while all lovely in their own right, actually achieve that.

I do welcome any attempt to use music for universal purposes and to shake up tired old classical music tropes. Grimaud, a committed environmentalist who has devoted much energy to a Wolf Conservation Center she helped found in upstate New York, provides her own program notes in which she speaks of water as "a molecule and as a metaphor ... an irresistible force both constant and ever-changing." I'll leave to the individual listener and reader to judge how much this adds to our understanding of the music. But the album is indeed enjoyable and delightful due to Grimaud's committed and energetic performances.

Some of these pieces, notably Ravel's Jeux d'eau and Liszt's Les Jeaux d'eau a la Villa D'Este, are familiar. They are often portrayed as descriptions of graceful fountains, and opportunities for the performer to display a light, virtuosic touch. Grimaud doesn't seem to view them that way. True to the album's theme, they are in these performances evocations of water as a far more powerful force, especially when aided by gravity. The Ravel is played with steely fingers. The cascading arpeggios are still there, of course, every note in its place, but not played to create blurry colors as much as to portray water shooting up and thundering, or even thudding down.The fountain is of course an attempt to tame water, channeling its play, turning it into a spectacle for human enjoyment. Grimaud's fountains are not tamed; they're unleashed.

Grimaud is generous and expansive with her metaphors in her commentary - but her way with words is far more vague than her way with music. She writes that the Liszt "embraces water's transformative properties, from Epicurean artifice to redemptive power" -- whatever that may mean. I listen to the music and I hear a depiction of the fountains at Tivoli, just north of Rome, each rising and falling in its own way and of the emotions they inspired in the composer. It's a glorious composition -- but why make it more than it is by freighting it with Epicurean artifice?

I wish I had been able to attend the event at the New York Armory, when I might have better understood some of the more metaphysical and mystical themes stated by Grimaud. At the end of the day, the music must still speak for itself and the album stands and falls on the quality of the playing. But I still recommend this collection as the latest utterance of one of our most interesting and original classical artists.