Earlier this month, we chose pianist Hélène Grimaud’s Water as our selection of the season in Modern Composition. This week, the rest of the world will get to hear it as well. Featuring the work of nine composers, Water flows smoothly (pun intended; even the label calls the album an “acoustic stream”) from source to sea. This liquidity is made possible through the lubrication of Nitin Sawhney, who lends his talents to seven “transitions” between tracks, each between one and two minutes in length. The advantage of such an approach is that the album sounds contemporary despite its compositional pedigree. At times, albeit briefly, it even sounds electronic.
Great credit goes to Grimaud for making atypical selections. By choosing compositions unfamiliar to the general public (no “La Mer”, no “Ocean Etude”), the artist preserves the sense of the new, and she is clearly excited about playing, so much so that her exuberance threatens to overwhelm the tracks. Fortunately, she knows just when to relent, to allow the beauty of these pieces to blossom.
Berio’s “Wasserklavier” is a brief early highlight, a quarter of the composer’s “element pieces.” A relatively recent piece (1965), it more than holds its own, and Grimaud’s tender rendition eases the listener into the album. Sawhney’s first transition then darkens the pool with wind chimes sinking in a sludge of drum hits. It’s a brave move, but a wise one, as it swiftly separates Water from the new age category that mars so many themed composer sets. Toru Tokemitsu’s “Rain Tree Sketch II”, composed only four years before his death in 1996, is a gentle follow-up made even more poignant by its timeline, while Janáček’s “Andante” exposes veins of darkness cast by the death of the composer’s daughter. Selections by Albéniz, Debussy, Fauré, Liszt and Ravel push the set into the flow of time, connecting the water of today to that of prior generations, as rain evaporates before falling back into the sea. The energy of “Jeux d’eau, M. 30” is especially palpable, as Grimaud plunges into the keys with abandon.
As expected, the album also contains a geopolitical component, as the artist is clearly enamored with her subject and yearns for the preservation of its purity. The public first encountered this set of music in installation form, as Grimaud performed on grand piano surrounded by Douglas Gordon’s “field of water” in New York City two Decembers ago. With the release of this album, one hopes that the event might be recreated. The joy seen in the pianist’s eyes seems to indicate that all things are possible ~ a positive approach to ecological renewal may begin with the ringing of a single note. (Richard Allen)