Classical Music: Dances with wolves

When she's not on stage, the pianist Helene Grimaud runs an animal sanctuary. The responsibility enriches her music, she tells Michael Church
Enthroned in solitary splendour, Helene Grimaud is giving interviews while her Deutsche Grammophon minders mill excitedly about. For this is not only The Girl Who Lives With Wolves, who attracts weird fans by the barrowload. She is also, after the critical and commercial success of Credo - her idiosyncratic debut disc for DG - the goose that lays golden eggs.

And DG is obliged to share her: the records she made for the Denon label in her teens, and for Erato in her twenties, still sit in the shops, and will go on sitting there as DG releases its own Grimaud recordings of many of the same works. "This duplication drives me crazy," she says. "But you'd never know that they were by the same person - it's now totally different." How so? "Oddly enough, this version is more youthful. When I was young, I had a much greater desire for control."

Having read Grimaud's memoir, Variations sauvages, I have an inkling of what she means: one of her youthful obsessions - from which music freed her - was inflicting cuts on herself. The book, she says, was dragged out of her by an editor who asked to see the thoughts she'd been privately penning since her teens. "But it's not an autobiography," she insists. "I was just interested in how you turn your demons into strengths." For example, she was born a gauchere, a left-hander, and suffered the usual fate of such children in regimented French schools. But Chopin, whose work emancipates the left hand, taught her to glory in this condition: "The right hand stands for normality and order, and the left for fantasy. I am very happy to be gauchere."

Now 34, Grimaud is bold and beautiful, and in the set of her head - and the look in her eye - there's something undeniably lupine: behind the poise you sense that quality which, by all accounts, neither school nor conservatoire could tame. "My parents thought that it was just physical energy, but it was actually emotional and psychological. These days, people talk about children having an attention deficit disorder - well, I was the opposite of that, I was way too focused. My parents tried to channel this in many directions, but music was the one that grabbed me. It appeared to me as a bottomless void, which I could never completely explore."

Getting accepted into the Paris Conservatoire proved to be anything but emancipation from the hated constraints of school. There, though she had brilliant teachers, she became a rebel against the prevailing modernist orthodoxy: "I had no problem with Boulez, but because I'd started playing so late, I had all of Schubert and Beethoven to catch up on. I felt the place was violating my own private repertoire, so I resisted it." Moreover, while they wanted her to play short studies, she insisted on playing whole concertos. She also resisted the tutorial style: "It was all about extracting difficulties from a piece, and dealing with them surgically and antiseptically, out of context. To me, that was an absurdity - and like a horse obsessing on the obstacle, you freeze at the jump.

A visiting Denon producer chanced to hear her, and insisted on making a record, for which she chose to play Rachmaninov. Irresistibly drawn to things Russian, she took herself off to the Moscow Tchaikovsky competition, where she surged through an impressive field to make the final dozen. Her tiny hands became famed for their big sound, and a string of conductors, including Daniel Barenboim, began queuing up to work with her, responding to the fact that she was a born Beethovenian. Her French prose may be exquisite, but she doesn't feel French, which she blames on her origins being a blend of Italian, Corsican, German, and Moroccan, and on traumas in her family past on which she refuses to elaborate. Musically, she feels at home with the German repertoire; geographically, she has settled for upstate New York.

But her greatest therapy began one night when she was walking a friend's dog in Florida. "I saw the silhouettes of a man and an animal that was seemingly canine, but not a dog. We talked, and the animal was obviously interested in me. We met again by chance a month later, and then again, by which time she'd rolled over for me. It was what she exuded that fascinated me: I wasn't afraid, my head wasn't full of Little Red Riding Hood images..."

She pauses, then brings out a beautifully apt sentence: "It was this sense of mystery, of a free spirit trapped in the net of human dominion." Did she identify? "Not consciously. But who knows? Maybe a kind of sympathy." Since the wolf's owner wasn't getting on with his charge, Grimaud agreed to visit her regularly, and she started to read up on the subject. "And - much like my approach to music - what started as a passion became a mission."

She considered setting up a wolf sanctuary, rejected that idea as merely sentimental, then hit on the project she now runs on a 16-acre estate with her partner, the photographer Henry Fair: an education centre where wolves live and children come to study them. "People are afraid of what they don't understand, and what they fear they want to destroy. And, as with classical music, the best way to induce conservation is to get to kids."

When not travelling, she spends her mornings and evenings at the piano, but her afternoons are devoted to the wolves, which have saved her, she reckons, from a misanthropic fate. That contact, she says, is enriching. "It drew something out in me - it's a privilege to relate to an animal like that. And there's something very musical in it. The quality of concentration you need - to interact with a wild animal can only be done on their terms - and it's identical to what you need with a piece of music. In both cases you're trying to interact with a being that is completely other."

On Wednesday, Grimaud makes her South Bank Centre debut with a recital of the works on her latest disc of Chopin and Rachmaninov, whom she describes as "the two princes of the piano". She is making a point of trying to get back to the way Rachmaninov's works were performed in his own day; and if the CD is any guide, Chopin's Second Sonata, his Berceuse, and his Barcarolle will emerge with riveting power. However, she's in no doubt about which mode matters more: "That act of sharing is what makes all the hassle worth it. We're all tempted sometimes by the Glenn Gould approach - to avoid all compromises by working in controlled circumstances in the studio - but I could never live without live performances. The adrenaline gives your playing urgency, and that's what makes classical music contemporary." The stage, she adds, is the only place where she is in contact with "something above" her: "A visitation, and it's not there every time." Let's hope that it's there this week.

Grimaud appears at the Royal Festival Hall (0870 401 8181) on 9 February; `Helene Grimaud: Chopin, Rachmaninov' is out on the Deutsche Grammophon label; `Variations sauvages' is published by Editions Robert Laffont