Helene Grimaud (piano)
Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor)
Fantasia on an Ostinato (Corigliano); Piano Sonata in D minor, opus 31 no 2 (The Tempest) (Beethoven); Choral Fantasy, opus 80 (Beethoven): Credo (Arvo Part)
DG 471 769-2
reviewed by Neville Cohn
If you’ve not yet heard of Helene Grimaud, make a note of the name. In fact, write it in capital letters because this young French pianist, seemingly touched by the little finger of God, is almost certain to have an illustrious career.In decades of listening to, and writing about, music, I have never before come across an account of Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy played with such magisterial authority. This is Beethoven in titanic, muscle-flexing mode and Grimaud is clearly the pianist for the job. Her playing exudes authority.
Drawing on a seemingly limitless technical armoury and the deepest wells of expressiveness, she informs much of the score with a grandeur that makes for utterly compelling listening.
This performance is not the product of the recording studio where, with numerous re-takes and the skills of a clever splicing editor, the end version can be made to sound better than it was in reality. There are innumerable instances of this artificial perfection in the discography.
In Grimaud’s recording of the Fantasy, however, made before an audience in the Berwaldhallen, Stockholm, what you hear is what was played. It’s a phenomenal achievement, a near-perfect collaboration between the soloist and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen who will be remembered by many forstartlingly fine direction of the Finnish National Radio Symphony Orchestra on its visit to Australia in the 1984.
It is still fashionable in some quarters, incidentally, to dismiss the Choral Fantasy as little more than a trial run for Beethoven’s Chorale Symphony. This recording, surely, will convert the doubters.
Not the least of Grimaud’s gifts is an ability to produce pianissimo shadings of the subtlest sort which contributed
in a major way to the tonal colouring of the work; it is a crucial factor in what, in retrospect, is a near-perfect assessment of the score’s stature. The Swedish Radio Choir rises splendidly to the occasion, as it does in Arvo Part’s Credo for piano, choir and orchestra. Part here draws on Bach’s Prelude No 1 in C from the first book of the ’48’. It appears on a number of occasions in different incarnations, in different registers, at different speeds
and decibel levels, sometimes mechanically expounded (as in the work’s opening measures), at other times lyrically stated.
Dissonant, ear-grating chords are played, at first slowly, then with increasing urgency to the point where they take
the form of rapid, insistent hammerings, a backdrop of sound against which the choir utters the Credo.
John Corigliano’s Fantasia on an ostinato opens with powerfully stated chords that are a call to attention. Here, too, Grimaud’s performance was astonishingly communicative. As in the Fantasy, tonal colourings are masterfully employed whether in delicato moments in reflective passages or in bursts of bell-like sound. And as the work draws to a close, we hear, phantom-like, the opening theme of Beethoven’s Symphony No 7. And in unadulterated Beethoven – his Sonata in D minor (The Tempest) – Grimaud, still young in years, gives a performance that sounds like the offering of an arrived master.
Rivettingly tempestuous, tonally muscular playing in the first movement, an adagio in which Grimaud gives full due
to its introverted beauty – and a finale mined to reveal its every detail make for memorable listening.
Copyright 2004 Neville Cohn