As the last notes of an orchestra rehearsal still hung in the air and most of the musicians were putting away their instruments, one piano at the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra guesthouse in Tel Aviv could still be heard.

A glance in the spacious room revealed the woman who was playing the Steinway. Even this practice session revealed something about the performer. She has high standards, and her music is bold, not soft and refined. She performs with an uncompromising determination, in a way that is all her own.

The pianist is the award-winning French musician Helene Grimaud, who is back in Israel to perform Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23 and Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Israel Philharmonic. She will be playing at the Haifa Auditorium tomorrow, in the Smolarz Auditorium in Tel Aviv on Thursday and Saturday (her last performance in Israel ), and at the Jerusalem Theater on Friday morning. Grimaud has been here several times before and says she has a soft spot for the Israel Philharmonic - and for the country.

"In general I felt an immediate attraction to Israel, an immediate connection to the people here," she says while seated at the piano bench.

The question about whether it is comfortable to chat while sitting without a backrest sounds silly right away. Grimaud, who was born in 1969 in Aix-en-Provence, France, to Jewish parents originally from Corsica and North Africa, typically spends most of the day seated on just such a bench. She gives 100 concerts a year, she makes recordings, she takes part in rehearsals, and she spends many, many hours practicing on her own.

Since launching her international career some 25 years ago, Grimaud has lived in Paris, Berlin, New York and several other cities. "Because of the frequent traveling, with a concert every three days, there were days when I didn't care where I was - I would just head to the next hotel ahead of the next concert," she recalls. "I wouldn't even go home."

Home is now in the small village of Wigges on the shores of Lake Lucerne in Switzerland, where famous composers and writers such as Rachmaninoff, Franz Liszt and Mark Twain lived or visited. "It's a place where the mountains and forests simply burst into the lake and surround it from all sides," she says of her new home. In words that sound as if she is describing her own playing style, she adds: "a very dramatic place, with an unstable climate."

"Many people think it's oppressive, but it isn't at all," says Grimaud. "This intensity, the power of nature, puts people in their place, shows how insignificant we are. And there is a lot of rainfall there, and that is poetic. And because of the changes in the weather, every day the scenery looks different. For me, it's a return to nature, which was so lacking for me in Berlin."

Grimaud has had more time to practice piano now that she no longer runs New York's Wolf Conservation Center.

Around 15 years ago, Grimaud extended her childhood love of nature to wolves after she met a man who had raised a wolf cub as a pet. She fell in love with the cub, and learned that their bad reputation was largely based on prejudice and misguided fairy tales. She adopted two more wolf cubs and bought a plot of land in upstate New York that, in 1999, became the headquarters of the Wolf Conservation Center, a research center working to protect wolves and save various wolf species from extinction.

"No, the wolf project is not over as far as I'm concerned," she says in response to a question about whether this adventure is now behind her. "I don't live in New York anymore, and that's why I left the running of the center to others. I always knew that the one day the center would continue without me. It will always be close to my heart, but now, when the closeness is not a daily thing, I have a lot more time for the piano."

'It all went pretty fast'

Playing the piano was not something that the young Grimaud picked up at home.

"No one in my family was musical," she says, adding that her family did not have a piano. "At the time I used to get bored and my parents tried to keep me busy with something. My mother thought that physical activity would help and they sent me to tennis and dance lessons and even martial arts classes, and in the end, when I was already 8 years old, to a music preparatory class."

The teacher spotted Grimaud's talent. "There were children much younger than me there, and we learned basic rhythms, and first encountered percussion instruments," she recalls. "They asked us to repeat notes we heard and play drums. After the first or second session, the teacher called my mother and told her that she apparently has a very talented daughter and they decided I would study piano, because it's a great instrument for starting to learn music. And from then on, it all went pretty fast."

"Fast" is a modest way of describing the dizzyingly rapid rise of the young Grimaud. At an age when professional pianists are already playing with an orchestra, she was first learning how to place the hands on the keys. Around four years later, she was accepted to one of the most demanding and prestigious music academy in Europe: the Conservatoire de Paris, where only a handful of students are accepted by age 16. She performed difficult pieces by Chopin for the entrance exams, and by the time she completed her studies, she had already embarked on an international career including recordings, recitals and solo performances with orchestras.

In the 1990s, she premiered with the New York Philharmonic and the Berlin Philharmonic (under the baton of Claudio Abbado, one of the world's leading conductors ), and now she performs with many major orchestras. Grimaud developed an international reputation. She has won numerous awards, taken part in recitals at several leading venues and performed with top conductors at festivals around the world.

Anti-artistic schedule

Grimaud's schedule is prepared three years in advance. "I have agencies, like all the other musicians, and the concerts are scheduled through them, but of course always with my approval," she says. "It's a difficult way to work, very anti-artistic. Knowing what I'm going to play three years from now doesn't help the spontaneity in my work."

And if there is a single accurate description of the nature of Grimaud's performance style and work, one of the top contenders would be "spontaneous."

"The ideal in a concert is for the work to be as if it were created during the performance, that I should create it then and there, on the spot," she says. "Bringing on stage a master plan, a strategy that I have to adhere to, and then copying it in concert after concert leads to the death of the music. And to listen to something that is played this way you don't need to go to concerts; you could listen to recordings at home."

At her concerts with the Israel Philharmonic, Grimaud will be performing Mozart's Concerto No. 23 in A major, a piece that has recently received media coverage because of Grimaud's creative differences with Abbado. Grimaud wanted to play the cadenza written by Italian composer Ferrucio Busoni rather than the cadenza written by Mozart, for the opening of the Lucerne Festival in August, which Abbado was conducting. Abbado, who is more conservative, wanted her to play the original. Grimaud stood by her demand to choose which version to play, just as musicians were free to improvise in Mozart's time. Abbado refused to give in and didn't let Grimaud open the festival as planned.

The conductor of Grimaud's concerts in Israel, Manfred Honeck (who is also a leading contemporary musician and currently serves as the music director of the illustrious Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra ), did not object to Grimaud's wishes, and anyone who attends one of the Tel Aviv concerts should keep an ear out for the Busoni cadenza.

Spontaneity, boldness and the risk of going out on a limb while performing, however, come with a price.

"The cost is the vulnerability of the soloist - whose status is very vulnerable - and of doubts regarding the performance, doubts that never end," says Grimaud. Now, when her world is increasingly focusing on the piano, she is also discovering new sides of it; she has suddenly found herself liking chamber music and recitals much more. She lists singers Thomas Quasthoff and Christine Schaefer, and the violinist Guy Braunstein, as some of the top chamber music artists she has performed with recently.

"Once I was glad to perform with an orchestra; now I see how good it is to play alone on the stage," says Grimaud.

Grimaud is asked if it is hard to give herself over to the audience. Pianists, after all, don't face the audience. They're focused on the large instrument in front of them, almost disconnected from the people who have come to hear them play.

"Yes, the piano is possessive," says Grimaud. "It gives a lot and is therefore very demanding. And yes, it is isolating, for better and for worse."