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Haunted by Beethoven's Allegretto

The French pianist Helene Grimaud brings the classics to a Berlin nightclub.
John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images
The French pianist Helene Grimaud brings the classics to a Berlin nightclub.

One week in the fall of 2003, the world seemed to be accompanied by a music that I love: the second movement, the Allegretto, from Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. First, the jazz pianist Jacques Loussier released a CD of Variations on the theme. I was ambivalent about doing an interview with Loussier: the original theme was too important to me, and playing and discussing Loussier's music but not Beethoven's might sound trite. Then I caught a moment of NPR's classical music program Performance Today, playing what struck my ear as a classical piano setting of the Beethoven theme. After some research it turned out to be by Schubert, who was even more obsessed by this theme than I was and had made some wonderful music of his own out of it. The least I could do was make some decent radio, but I wasn't sure how.

Then, I heard the music that created critical mass in my mind for a story about the Beethoven theme and some of the music and musicians it has inspired. The pianist Helene Grimaud released an album called Credo, in which she played pieces by Beethoven, Aarvo Part and the American composer John Corigliano. The Corigliano piece, "Fantasia on an Ostinato," was based on the Allegretto from Beethoven's Seventh — as Grimaud would say, "haunted by it."

The story aired on Christmas Eve. It's on my mind because it introduced me to the remarkable Miss Grimaud, who appears on All Things Considered once again this week. This will be the third time I have spoken with her: I also interviewed her in 2005 about a CD of Chopin and Rachmaninoff pieces. The occasion this time: the publication in English of her memoir, Wild Harmonies, and the release of a new CD, Reflection, featuring the music of Robert and Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms.

Here is my personal archive of interviews with Helene Grimaud, of whom I will add only the following:

She is a gifted, versatile pianist who plays with compelling intensity and passion. She is a thinking musician for whom an album is an art form, a collection of studio performances united not by composer or convenient duration, but by an idea. She speaks and writes of romanticism and a transcendental communion with nature, which she manages to live out by running a rescue center for wolves, for whom she feels a special affinity — part ecological, part mystical. And she is, to put it simply, gorgeous.

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Robert Siegel
Prior to his retirement, Robert Siegel was the senior host of NPR's award-winning evening newsmagazine All Things Considered. With 40 years of experience working in radio news, Siegel hosted the country's most-listened-to, afternoon-drive-time news radio program and reported on stories and happenings all over the globe, and reported from a variety of locations across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia. He signed off in his final broadcast of All Things Considered on January 5, 2018.