Adequate performances of Robert Schumann's Piano Concerto are a regular part of every musical season, winter and summer. Memorable ones occur seldom.
Helene Grimaud, the highly gifted pianist from Aix-en-Provence, gave an acceptable reading to the familiar showpiece on her return to Hollywood Bowl, Thursday night in the third and final program of the current visit by San Francisco Symphony. She failed to define the work's style, however, or to probe its lyricism, or to lift its songfulness above the mundane.
One needn't go back to the heydays of Myra Hess and Guiomar Novaes in the 1940s and '50s to name a role model on which Grimaud might have based her approach to this work. In 1987, the late Malcolm Frager gave what seemed a definitive reading of Schumann's masterpiece of 1841, exploring its dichotomy of command and reticence, glowing passion and reserved rhetoric.
Before an audience recorded at 9,073 on Thursday, Grimaud simply played through the piece, observing its sensibility without caressing its details, proving solid rather than fluent in expressing its extended lines, regular rather than persuasive stating its rhythms. No sense of breathlessness informed the opening movement; the Intermezzo clomped along, and the finale emerged effortful rather than buoyant. Charm stayed away.
For all the fine accomplishments of Music Director Herbert Blomstedt and his San Francisco ensemble, this team avoided any compelling playing on this occasion.
Still, the opening work on the program, Grieg's suite, "From Holberg's Time," revealed admirable mechanical achievement and a disciplined tone-palette in the orchestra's strings. Genuine transparency would seem still to be in the future.
What was missing in Blomstedt's efficient but clearly articulated reading of Mussorgsky-Ravel's "Pictures at an Exhibition"--musicological revisionists have now declared the at to be better as a from --seemed to be imagination, the connection of thoughts to sounds and the projection of both to an interested audience. Playing the notes carefully is never enough.