Symphony conductors determine the program for an evening -- why not let recording soloists do the same?
On Credo, her first Deutsche Grammophon release, French pianist Helene Grimaud has assembled a conversation about faith -- about the tension between dogma and toleration -- among four works both old and new.
The program's nucleus, she says, was Beethoven's "Choral Fantasy." After a quiet solo introduction, the strings, woodwinds and horns make their entries; then the piano trills a familiar theme, and the entire piece, shouting lyrics of peace and joy, foreshadows the Ninth Symphony.
Next came Estonian composer Arvo Part's title work for piano, mixed chorus and orchestra (1968) because of its opposition against "blind obedience to any ideology." Like the Choral Fantasy, Part's Credo was recorded live in Stockholm in September 2003, with Esa-Pekka Salonen leading the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Choir. (As you'd expect with DG, the recording is impeccable.) After a frightening crescendo near the beginning, Part works through his text (Matthew 5:38-39) with a wailing chorus and snarling trumpets -- like the music of hell -- until the repeated notes of a Bach prelude provide solace and the full orchestra provides a rousing, final statement of belief.
In Beethoven's "Tempest" sonata, Grimaud conveys the dynamics of the storm well: At the end of the first movement, the notes sound remarkably submerged, as if the pianist were imitating the watery grave that threatens the play's characters.
John Corigliano's Fantasia (1985) introduces the album because, like Part, the American composer includes a chaotic, cacophonous section, which is later resolved into tranquility. Corigliano says he was after minimalism plus emotional expression, and indeed the theme (from the Allegretto of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony) enters so slowly as to be almost indistinguishable, fragmenting into chaos that's resolved by chiming notes and a dirge-like final chord.
Grimaud's liner notes are alternately edifying and pretentious: Now that she's been inspired by the visionary German Romantic poet Novalis, she informs us, "the reconciliation of all opposites... is -- I know now -- the steady pulse of my life."
Perhaps she sounds silly because she's trying to convey the ineffable in words (much as music reviewers try to do). But after hearing the thunderous struggling and transcendent resolution of the music of Beethoven, Part and Corigliano, as performed by Grimaud and Salonen, most listeners will reaffirm that some beauties are indeed beyond expressing.