Hélène Grimaud is a pianist who defies feminine stereotypes. Her favored repertory has been Brahms, Beethoven, Rachmaninov, Schumann, and Liszt, not the less muscular music of Mozart (which she didn't perform until she was 21), Poulenc, or Chopin. From her early twenties on, Grimaud's lush sound and sweeping interpretations drew comparisons to such pianists as Martha Argerich and Jorge Bolet.
Although born in France, Grimaud has not identified herself with French culture and music. She is of North African, Corsican, and Italian Jewish heritage (her family changed its name from Grimaldi before she was born), and from her early adulthood she has been based in the United States.
An "agitated and agitating" child by her own admission, Grimaud started studying the piano at nine with Jacqueline Courtin of the Aix Conservatoire, simply as a channel for her surplus energy. After only three years, she was able to play Schumann's Papillons, the first movement of Beethoven's Waldstein Sonata, and Fauré's Barcarolle No. 5 impressively, and after further lessons with Pierre Barbizet in Marseilles, she entered the Paris Conservatory at 13. In Paris, as an impatient and rebellious student of Jacques Rouvier, Genevieve Joy, and Christian Ivaldi, she insisted on learning repertory at a faster pace than the conservatory system allowed; on her own, she arranged to play the Chopin Concerto in F minor with the conservatory orchestra back in Aix when she was 14. Rouvier, impressed, gave a tape of that concert to a producer for Denon and that company, initially not realizing that Grimaud was in her early teens, recorded her in Rachmaninov's Sonata No. 2 and Etudes-Tableaux, Op. 33. That CD garnered a Grand Prix du Disque; Grimaud was only 16. On the strength of that and a French radio broadcast, in 1987 she began playing concerts outside the conservatory, including an engagement at age 18 with Daniel Barenboim and the Orchestre de Paris (only her fourth public concert).
She maintains friendships with Barenboim, Martha Argerich, and Gidon Kremer and greatly admires the work of Vladimir Horowitz and Glenn Gould, yet she is never as prone to waywardness as those musicians. Grimaud does share Gould's fascination with clear counterpoint and Argerich's and Kremer's general intensity. Yet her treatment of Brahms, for example, avoids attention-getting extremes of tempo and instead follows what she has called a "pulsation that's very close to the ideal heartbeat," while also clarifying the textures. She is willing to take risks in performance, but only those that illuminate the music rather than spotlight the soloist. In Rachmaninov, she emphasizes what she calls the music's "nobility of heart" and lyricism rather than its virtuosity. She has said that she tired of flashy pieces like Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies as a teenager and in her twenties, started to focus especially on such monolithic Austro-Germanic composers as Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and Berg. She has continued a busy schedule of international performances with some of the world's most prestigious orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, and the London Symphony, focusing on concertos of Beethoven, Rachmaninov, Brahms, Schumann, Ravel, and Bartók. As a recitalist she has toured with repertoire including the works of Arvo Pärt, John Corigliano, Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann, and Brahms. Grimaud cites an appearance at The Last Night of the Proms in 2008 as a personal highlight of her career.
Grimaud is extremely private, but her known eccentricities are no more extreme than a habit of learning music mostly by running it through her head rather than drilling it into her fingers. Perhaps it is this technique that has led to her concentration on overall musical line and color rather than moment-to-moment virtuosity. Grimaud took a university degree in animal behavior by correspondence, intending to be a biologist if music didn't work out. Since 1991, when she settled in the United States, her primary non-musical interest has been wolf conservation involving the preservation of wolves in their natural habitat as a critical element of biodiversity. To this end, she established the educational non-profit Wolf Conservation Center in upstate New York, where she has lived since 1997.