J.S. BACH: Five excerpts from The Well-Tempered Clavier; Piano Concerto in D minor BWV 1052; Transcriptions by Busoni, Rachmaninoff and Liszt – Hélène Grimaud, piano and cond. Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie, Bremen – DGG 4776248, 76 mins. ****(*):
A musically hot and trendy French pianist shows why she is one of Deutsche Grammophon’s superstars with an unconventional, provocative Bach recital that, in the words of Rodney Dangerfield, don’t take no shit from nobody.
Mixing nominally Urtext Bach with virtuoso arrangements by Rachmaninov, Liszt and Busoni and, in the middle of it all, a driven, dark and moody performance of the composer’s great D minor Piano Concerto, Hélène Grimaud paints a portrait of Bach that seems designed to encourage the yellow label to appeal to a wider, younger audience as well as experienced, shock-resistant fanciers of the cantor.
Add fancy packaging, an interview revealing some of the pianist’s personal intensity and artistic integrity, and a heavily produced “sound” that’s designed to emphasize everything that’s extraordinary about the performances, and you have music-making which lies on a foundation of music-making that awaken echos not only of countless great virtuosi past and present, but of the greatest pure Bach pianist of the 20th century, Edwin Fischer.
Back to the sound. During a conversation with William Christie, when he was one of Harmonia mundi’s harpsichord stars, he claimed that he liked his recordings to be engineered so that the listener would feel as if she or he were inside the harpsichord: loud and just a bit rattlely. (Probably hyperbole, although if you go back and listen to things like Christie’s Johann Caspar Ferdinand Fischer recital, you might not be too sure.) [That’s why most keyboard recordings sound like your head is under the lid and the instrument is 40 feet wide!…Ed.]
On this new Grimaud adventure, everything is close-up and mostly very smooth with integrated touches of sonic claustrophobia and mysteriously distant reverberation, and it serves Grimaud’s interpretations which are parsimonious in their use of white space, leading occasionally to stupefying effects of breathless continuity. This is particularly noticeable in the fugues which are almost unbearable in their introspective focus. The totally unnatural sound serves the Oz-like transcriptions, however, just fine, as well as seeming to provide oxygen to the long, relentless lines of the Piano Concerto.
— Laurence Vittes