Helene Grimaud, Royal Festival Hall

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The Independent Culture

Put temporarily out of the game last year by illness, Helene Grimaud is one of the most exciting young pianists around, and one of a kind.

She shares with a few select souls – Scriabine was another – that rare merging of the senses known as synaesthesia, which for her means hearing in colour. A self-lacerating teenage rebel, she tamed her inner demons by defying her professors and starting a recording career despite them; she then fell in love with a wolf which she met being walked in Florida. That led her to found her own wolf conservation centre – a project which answered her misanthropic tendencies, and has, she says, informed her musical thinking. Her Cds tend to be ‘concept’ albums rather than the usual conventional recipes, and she brings a scintillating intelligence to everything she plays. You may not always agree with her, but she compels a response.

Her comeback recital at the Royal Festival Hall was typically eclectic, and began with a piece of Mozart which put me in furious disagreement. His A minor sonata K 310 may have an anguished, heart-on-sleeve first movement, but what she did with it seemed a denial of its nature. The opening phrase was muzzily over-pedalled, with the rest of the movement being an angry blur, while her strident touch in the Andante made a mockery of Mozart’s ‘con espressione’ marking; only the lightness and urgency of the presto felt authentic.

But thereafter she redeemed herself magnificently, first with Berg’s lapidary Sonata Op 1. In her hands this exquisite tone-poem had the lunar clarity of a dream, its soaring cadences and arpeggiated chords seeming all the more passionate for being the last gasp of late Romanticism. Then, following this year’s fashion, she launched into Liszt’s gigantic Sonata in B minor, but from the first few bars it was clear that her interpretation was going to be different. At those points where other pianists tend to charge through the undergrowth, Grimaud remained in Olympian control; I have seldom heard Liszt’s melange of exaltation, serenity, and fury presented with such a sure sense of its poetry.

Her stylish envoi was Bartok’s six Romanian Folk Dances, with each being vividly characterised; her encore – an arrangement of Gluck’s best-loved air – was disarmingly sweet. Welcome back.