© New York Times

Published: March 7, 2004

Common wisdom in the classical record industry holds that a disc featuring works by more than one or two composers is a hard sell. The concern is less philosophical than pragmatic: where should the disc be filed in a record store or on a collector's shelf? Even with a single composer, it may be problematic to mix media: solo piano works, say, with concertos.

Happily, such mundane concerns were far from the mind of the pianist Hlne Grimaud when she assembled "Credo," her debut album for Deutsche Grammophon. Having already recorded the major war horses for other labels in consumer-friendly combinations, she here looses her imagination to create a program based on a theme of universalism, the belief that all things are interconnected, even seeming opposites.

To illustrate her point, she pairs Beethoven's ambitious, awkward Choral Fantasy with Arvo Prt's early "Credo." Similarly constituted works, they form mirror images in their treatment of the relationships between improvisation and the score, soloist and ensemble even mankind and the infinite.

Ms. Grimaud revels in the rhythmic zeal and dramatic gestures of Beethoven's unaccompanied opening, mindful of its origin as an extended improvisation. The orchestra, vocal soloists and chorus impose a degree of order on the pianist's fantasy in music that was surely a dry run for the Ninth Symphony's "Ode to Joy," although the text is resolutely secular.

Mr. Prt composed "Credo," which is based on a passage from the Gospel of Matthew, in 1968. Unambiguous in its religiosity, it was one of his last works in an early pastiche style, before he took a hiatus and developed his mature voice. Listeners unfamiliar with his beginnings may be shocked by the work's dissonance and tumultuous rhythmic violence. Stark serialism and improvisatory passages for chorus and orchestra are ultimately quelled by the pianist's quotation of the placid opening prelude from the first book of Bach's "Well-Tempered Clavier," presaging the austerity of Mr. Prt's later works.

The performance reveals the extent to which Ms. Grimaud is willing to sit back and let her colleagues here, the Swedish Radio Chorus and Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen in his Deutsche Grammophon debut carry the proceedings. Ms. Grimaud's account of the Beethoven fantasy is one of the more lithe and lively on record, and Mr. Salonen accompanies in sprightly fashion.

Ms. Grimaud completes her program with two solo works. John Corigliano's "Fantasia on an Ostinato" is a contemporary Romantic's gloss on Minimalism. Its rippling surfaces and motor rhythms only gradually reveal a stately minor-key melody from Beethoven's Seventh Symphony.

Ms. Grimaud argues for the inclusion of Beethoven's well-trod "Tempest" Sonata by invoking its connection to Shakespeare's humanist drama of that name. But no argument is needed. In the company of contemporary music, Beethoven never fails to sound fresh, modern and renewed.

Ms. Grimaud's ideological view of music as a humanist panacea meant to salve the souls of the wretched (on which she elaborates in the booklet) is no doubt deeply felt, but it is not necessary to buy into it to appreciate her achievement here. With "Credo," she offers a rich and engrossing recital program in which each component meaningfully touches on and amplifies aspects of the others.

Steve Smith is the classical music and opera editor of Time Out New York.

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