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John CORIGLIANO (b. 1938)
Fantasia on an Ostinato (1985) [12:04]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770 - 1827)
Piano Sonata No 17 in D minor, Op. 31/2, The Tempest (1802) [21:58]
Choral Fantasia for piano, chorus and orchestra in C minor, Op. 80 (1808) [19:03]
Arvo PÄRT (b. 1935)
for piano, mixed choir and orchestra (1968) [15:16]
Hélène Grimaud (piano)
*Swedish Radio Choir and Symphony Orchestra/Esa-Pekka Salonen
rec. September 2003, Berwaldhallen, Sveriges Radio, Stockholm. (*denotes live recording). DDD
Texts and translations included
Pure Audio Formats: 2.0 PCM 24-bit/192Khz; 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio 24-bit/192Khz; 2.0 Dolby TrueHD 24-bit/192Khz

This Blu-ray Audio release consists of a programme issued a few years ago on CD and still available in that format (471 7692). Even for a CD the playing time is somewhat ungenerous and for collectors the length of the programme may be even more of an issue at the premium price level of BD-A discs. However, in fairness it must be said that the fairly short length of the programme is dictated by the fact that the choice of music is very deliberate. The way in which the programme was built is explained in the booklet notes which consist largely of a forward by Hélène Grimaud and a conversation between her and Michael Church - Mr Church also contributes some extremely brief notes about each of the four pieces. I’m not going to attempt to summarise the thinking behind the programme - not all of which I fully understand, I readily admit - except to repeat the pianist’s comment that the programme is ‘all underpinned by the theory of Universalism, which is the quintessence of German Romanticism, above all as expressed by the visionary poet, Novalis’.
Whether or not one accepts or agrees with all of Miss Grimaud’s reasoning in assembling her programme - and I’m not sure I do - the pieces actually work together rather well.
The keystone of the programme is Beethoven’s Choral Fantasia. This, Miss Grimaud admits with disarming candour, was a piece she learned ‘reluctantly’ but then found that she’d underestimated. How many other pianists have similarly misjudged it, I wonder, but aren’t brave enough to admit it? Perhaps that’s one reason why it’s heard relatively rarely in our concert halls though I suspect that the forces required and its slightly awkward length are more important factors. Also it must be admitted that it doesn’t represent Beethoven at his greatest but it’s still a very interesting work. It was composed for the famous concert in 1808 at which Beethoven also unveiled his Fourth Piano Concerto as well as the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies - no complaints about short playing time on that occasion! The present performance is a very good one. Hélène Grimaud gives a tremendous account of the quasi-improvisatory opening for solo piano. After this comes what is, in effect, a set of variations which she and the Swedish orchestra deliver very convincingly. When the chorus joins the party, in what sounds like a dry run for the Ninth Symphony, they make a strong contribution too.
The piece by Pärt was next to be added to the mix - the forces required are not dissimilar though the orchestra is much larger. As Michael Church points out, this piece ‘came at that pivotal moment in Pärt’s development when he was renouncing his early serialism in favour of the graceful religious austerity for which he is now best known.’ One of the things which apparently drew Miss Grimaud to include this composition in her programme is Pärt’s use of a Bach Prelude - the C major Prelude from Book One of the’48 - which we hear, on the piano, near the start and also towards the end of the work. It’s a strange piece and I freely confess that I don’t really understand what lies behind it: the extended and very loud aleatoric passage in the middle of the score I find repellent, I’m afraid.
Next to be added to the programme was the Beethoven sonata, apparently because the other two works ‘suggested (to Miss Grimaud) the German Romantic idea of oneness, the connectedness of things through their sacredness.’ She does this sonata very well, capturing the mix of mystery and energy in the first movement successfully and playing calmly and with fine poise in the central Adagio. Here zestful reading of the Allegretto finale is a delight; there’s lightness and vitality to her playing. I enjoyed her account of this sonata very much.
John Corigliano’s Fantasia on an Ostinato was composed as a test piece for the Van Cliburn Competition but, fear not, this is no academic exercise. The composition is founded on the theme of the slow movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony and Corigliano exploits both the rhythmic motif and the harmonic pattern most imaginatively, the music becoming increasingly complex, inventive and virtuosic as the piece unfolds. It’s only at 9:12 that we hear Beethoven’s theme in its original harmony, albeit gently elaborated in the right hand, and even then it’s not long before Corigliano starts to ‘play around’ with the note values of Beethoven’s theme. I found this a thoroughly intriguing and very interesting piece.
So, I think that as a ‘concept album’ this programme works pretty well, even if the Pärt piece is not to my taste. The execution is first class. I haven’t been able to compare the BD-A sound with what’s on offer from the CD. The BD-A format presents very clear and truthful sound, especially in the solo Beethoven and Corigliano works. Whether the audio gains are sufficient to justify upgrading from CD to BD-A in view of the short playing time on offer here is debatable, however.
In some ways this eclectic and highly individual programme is a brave choice for UMG to include in their early BD-A release schedule. I don’t wish to sound disrespectful of the music or of the artistry on display in this release but it seems an odd choice as an early BD-A release. There are many other things in UMG’s catalogue that would have made a more compelling case for the new audio medium, showing it off to better advantage - and offering longer playing time - and which, dare one suggest, might achieve higher sales.
John Quinn  

Masterwork Index: Beethoven piano sonata 17