Updated Friday, November 2, 2012 at 01:31 PM
It has been almost a dozen years since Hélène Grimaud played the President's Piano Series, and it is clear that those intervening years have not changed Grimaud's unique approach to music: She does it her way.
Her way includes an amazing technical ability, as the French-born pianist made clear in the huge Liszt Sonata in B Major that was the blizzard-of-notes centerpiece of the program. It also includes an approach to other works (particularly Mozart) that sounded harsh, clattery and just plain stylistically wrong.
You could practically feel ripples of dismay in Meany Theater during the Mozart Sonata in A Minor (K. 310), which was loud and overpedaled — as if Grimaud were channeling the spirit of Brahms or Liszt. The sonority sounded forced and stylistically all wrong for Mozart, as did the odd variations in tempo from bar to bar.
Grimaud has played this exact program (Mozart, Alban Berg, Liszt and Bartok) repeatedly over the last few years, so it's a mystery why she used a score and a page-turner for the Berg Sonata; that work should certainly be in her memory, as well as her fingers, by now. Turbulent and complicated, Berg's early one-movement Sonata moves in dozens of different directions, with its late-romantic tonality distorted as if reflected in a fun-house mirror. Grimaud gave it a surging energy.
After intermission came the Liszt Sonata, and the best playing of the night. This monumental one-movement work taxes the pianist in every way: it's a horrendous technical challenge, and its improvisatory feel makes a cohesive interpretation of the Sonata highly difficult. Grimaud made a great case for doing the Liszt her way, often at top speed, a tempo that sometimes defeated even her dizzying dexterity. This is all-out playing that holds nothing back, and Grimaud's white-hot intensity with all those parallel octaves and leaping chords is exciting to witness. Many in the Meany audience rose for an ovation after the final note died away.
Charming, but anticlimactic, was the brief set of six Bartok "Romanian Folk Dances" that followed the Liszt. Grimaud played two encores: Gluck's "Mélodie" ("Dance of the Blessed Spirits") from the opera "Orfeo ed Euridice," arranged by Giovanni Sgambati, and then a brief, ethereal Nouvelle Etude No. 1 in F Minor of Frédéric Chopin.
One nonmusical note: Perhaps it is time to reconsider the very lengthy preconcert announcements, which offer information that is usually (or should be) available in the program.
Melinda Bargreen also reviews concerts for 98.1 Classical KING FM. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.