Proms Chamber Music No.2 (28 July)

Fantasia on an Ostinato
Sonata in D minor, Op.31/2 (Tempest)
Bach arr. Busoni
Chaconne (Partita in D minor, BWV 1004)

Hélène Grimaud (piano)

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 28 July, 2003
Venue: Lecture Theatre, Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Fantasy, improvisation and transcription were the keynotes of this absolutely outstanding, intelligently constructed lunchtime recital, the second of the V & A Chamber Proms which also take in the opportunity to examine an object from the museum. Rather appropriately, in view of the excitements which were to follow, it was “Pandora (and her box) engraved on a glass vase by George & Thomas Woodall (1890)”.

The recital itself fell into two distinct section, the first comprising John Corigliano’s impressive Fantasia on an Ostinato based on the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony which led straight into the Beethoven Sonata, an imaginative and illuminating piece of planning which worked excellently.

The Corigliano, written for the Van Cliburn Piano Competition, has been taken up by a number of pianists, notably Emanuel Ax. Its impressiveness was especially so here when played, to a notably attentive audience, with such concentration and a fabulous range of dynamics, including some of the most exquisite soft playing imaginable. The Beethoven theme underlies the whole piece but is not actually articulated note for note until just before the very end when it seems to lead us, almost crab-like and voluntarily, towards the opening arpeggio of the Tempest sonata. For much of the time in the Corigliano, sounds seem to hang suspended in the air, the aural equivalent of peering into the glassy surface of a lake, sometimes suggesting echoes of other music, the repeated notes of ’Le gibet’ from Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit. It is hard to imagine a more sensitive or committed performance than Grimaud’s.

Asked by one of his pupils what he wished to express with the D minor sonata, Beethoven replied “Read Shakespeare’s Tempest”. Whether meant or not, in this instance Prospero’s words at the end of the play seemed entirely apt: “But this rough magic I here abjure, and, when I have required some heavenly music, which even now I do … I’ll break my staff”. Grimaud’s performance was on the grandest scale – volatile, dynamic and exploratory, constantly reminding of the improvisatory quality present in Beethoven’s piano writing. It worked brilliantly, recalling a similarly dynamic albeit very different performance once heard from Annie Fischer. At the end, the Finale’s perpetuum mobile slips away into the night, out of earshot, an effect magnificently realised by Grimaud.

Busoni’s version of Bach’s violin Chaconne – almost inconceivably he also made a version for left hand alone – has to qualify as one of the most technically demanding, over-the-top re-compositions in the piano repertoire. As is well known, Miss Grimaud keeps wolves. On the evidence of this performance she might like to consider adding a couple of tigers. Rachmaninov once described Horowitz as “pouncing” on his then not-played Third Concerto and “swallowing it whole”, a description equal to Grimaud’s supremely visceral performance of Busoni’s re-working. For an encore, a dashing rendition of a Rachmaninov Etude-tableau.

This sold-out recital was the real thing. Five stars.

  • Radio 3 re-broadcast on Sunday 3 August at 1 p.m.
  • BBC Proms

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