Pianist returning to PSO finds Brahms special

| Saturday, Jan. 25, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

When pianist Helene Grimaud returns to Heinz Hall for her fourth set of Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra subscription concerts, she'll be performing music by a composer for whom she's felt a special affinity nearly all her life.

She loves the music by Ludwig van Beethoven, Maurice Ravel and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart that she's played here before and on the orchestra's 2011 European tour with Manfred Honeck.

But when she heard Johannes Brahms' music, it felt somehow familiar, even though she was hearing it for the first time.

Honeck will conduct the Pittsburgh Symphony with Grimaud as soloist at concerts on Jan. 31, and Feb. 1 and 2 at Heinz Hall, Downtown. The program is Johann Sebastian Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor, performed in Leopold Stokowski's famous orchestration, plus Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony No. 4, and Johannes Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1.

Grimaud was a child when she heard her first Brahms — not a piano piece, but his Symphony No. 3.

She says she had “a sense of recognition, this feeling of how you have some encounters and you know it's always going to be part of your life, going forward. You may not know much else, but you know that.”

She started right away with Brahms music she could play — the first Intermezzo from the Piano Pieces, Op. 117, and the first of the four Ballades, Op. 10. She says her first really strong performing experiences, years later, were of the sonatas Nos. 2 and 3 and then the First Concerto.

Grimaud has made two recordings of Brahms' First Concerto. The earlier is from 1997, with the Staaskapelle Berlin conducted by Kurt Sanderling. In September 2013, Deutsche Grammophon released a two-disc set of both Brahms' Piano Concerti of Grimaud performances from 2012 with Bavarian Radio and Vienna Philharmonic Orchestras conducted by incoming Boston Symphony music director Andris Nelsons.

She particularly likes the Musikverein concert hall in Vienna, where she recorded the Piano Concerto No. 2. Brahms consulted on the design of the hall.

“The Musikverein is one of the most beautiful concert halls in the world,” she says. “It has a perfect balance between warmth and radiance and clarity. It has this golden tone.”

Apart from her musical work, Grimaud is a noted wildlife conservationist, human-rights activist and author of three published books.

Yet despite, or perhaps because of, her keen intellect, Grimaud knows the limits of explaining her affinity for Brahms.

“I think there is a dimension in Brahms' dramatic intensity, spectrum of human emotions, this yearning which I think resonates so strongly with many of us,” Grimaud says. “I think, apart from the mysterious aspects of subjective affinities and chemistry, there is something that can never be fully understood or explained about us, about what makes an artistic relationship strong between composer and interpreter or different interpreters.”

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or mkanny@tribweb.com.

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