The water-themed musicale is one of the oldest concert types in Western music. To add something new to it is a tall order, but pianist Hélène Grimaud inarguably does here. She does so with the conventional repertoire on the album alone: edgily static pieces by Luciano Berio and Toru Takemitsu broaden out into and deepen the Romantic and post-Romantic favorites from Ravel, Fauré, Liszt, Albéniz, Janácek, and Debussy (the marvelous Cathédrale Engloutie). But Grimaud seems to want to up her game still further. In concert with this material she has employed such devices as playing on a piano marooned within a pool of water. Whether this focuses the listener's attention is debatable, but it's mild compared with the strategy employed on this album: Grimaud collaborates with producer and electronica figure Nitin Sawhney to create seven "transitions" (not a terribly poetic name), all titled Water and connecting the repertory works on the program. Each work ends conventionally, but the Sawhney transitions run directly into the beginnings without interruption; Grimaud indicates that you can listen to them separately if desired, but that's clearly not what she has in mind. Is she intended to be "surrounded" by water as in the pool performances? In what sense do the Sawhney pieces provide transitions? They are watery enough, one supposes, but not linked deeply to the pieces they connect. There is nothing at all wrong with trying to link the traditions of classical music and electronica, which proceed from some of the same assumptions and techniques, and an artist of Grimaud's stature deserves credit for trying. Listeners' reactions to the attempt may vary widely, with some experiencing the heightened attention aimed at while others find the structure gimmicky. Sample, say, the Sawhney-Ravel pair (tracks 6 and 7), and decide for yourself.
by James Manheim