Classical music meets Ecology: Hélène Grimaud’s new album Water

By Jeroen van Gessel
Groningen University

‘This is the world’s most precious commodity. We need to control as much of it as we can.’ Thus spoke Dominic Greene, the bad guy from Quantum of Solace, while taking in a performance of Tosca. He wasn’t talking about the opera, however, but about water and that’s as close as classical music and water ecology have ever gotten in the public imagination. True, there is a long-standing tradition of celebrating the natural beauties of rivers and seas in music, ranging from pieces like Händel’s Water Music, Smetana’s Moldau, and Debussy’s La Mer to contemporary cheesy New-Age mixtures of classical music and water that promise rest and relaxation, but are more likely to stimulate wetting one’s bed, so view at your own risk:

Water, the new album by French pianist Hélène Grimaud, seeks to add a new dimension to these musico-aquatic utterances. Just like her previous concept albums, such as Credo (2003) and Resonances (2010), the meticulously groomed black-and-white photos of Grimaud that dominate Water’s design aim to resemble the release of an indie pop label.

Grimaud 1

Their importance for her image can best be gauged by comparing them to the photos on her first recordings, where she looks like the daughter-in-law that Hyacinth Bucket would have wanted for her Sheridan:

Grimaud 2

At the same time, the musicological information about the historical background of the repertoire that one normally encounters in the booklet has been jettisoned in favour of personal statements. Grimaud regales us with one of her poems from which we learn that water is ‘merciless and miraculous’ and ‘Nature’s composer’. In addition, we encounter quotes by Heraclitus and St. Francis of Assisi, and some further notes co-written with producer Misha Aster. Excerpts from the latter provide the contents for the bonus track, where Grimaud summarizes the rationale for her repertoire selection. For a short version of it, see

On the album, we encounter beloved ‘water pieces’ like Liszt’s Les jeux d’eau à la Villa d’Este and Ravel’s Jeux d’eaux alongside  works by Fauré, Albeniz, Debussy, and some more original choices like Berio’s Wasserklavier and Takemitsu’s Rain Tree Sketch. Between them we hear short interludes of electronic music, specially composed for this CD by Nitin Sawhney. Although unrelated to the piano pieces, they are supposed to cement them together and create a single, continuous listening experience.

Grimaud has repeatedly voiced her opinion that music – by which she presumably means classical music – will contribute to a better world. She is also known for her passion for environmental issues, although she shies away from the drudgery of climate conferences. Instead, she has written a book about her passion for wolves: Variations Sauvages (2003). On the cover we can see her cuddle up with three specimens (Don’t try this at home!):

Grimaud 3

Water may be interpreted as the next stage in a long line of attempts to foreground the social relevance of classical music. Let’s not forget that Grimaud is an excellent pianist and that she does the works recorded here full justice, but whether this album will be more beneficial to the environment than Dominic Greene’s machinations remains to be seen…