French pianist Hélène Grimaud and Scottish artist Douglas Gordon collaborated last December in New York for a high-concept recital, “tears become . . . streams become . . .,” in which Grimaud presented a mix of watery works on a Steinway grand in the center of a flooded Park Avenue Armory. Eerie and immersive, the experience they created was probably the closest thing possible to hearing Debussy’s “The Sunken Cathedral” in an actual sunken cathedral.
Grimaud’s new Deutsche Grammophon release was recorded during “tears become . . . streams become . . .,” and the venue’s vast space echoes through every piece, giving the piano’s sound an ethereal shimmer. The short 19th- and 20th-century works by composers such as Liszt, Janacek, and Takemitsu evoke the many personalities of water: playful fountains, raging rivers, tranquil showers. Grimaud plays with a keen sensitivity to the music and the setting, letting the ribbons of arpeggios and scales in Ravel’s “Jeux d’eau” flow with exquisite grace. Berio’s “Wasserklavier” is spacious, individual chords like stones falling into a still pond.
If the water muddies slightly, it only does so in the most tangentially aqueous selections. In particular, Faure’s “Barcarolle No. 5” loses some clarity in the lower register’s virtuosic passages. Pleasantly glitchy transition pieces by producer Nitin Sawhney sound like background music for a perpetually rainy planet’s Weather Channel; whether they help one piece meld into the next is hit or miss. Clearly intended as a journey, “Water” works just as well as a collection of individual works.