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''How intriguing that it took Olivier Greif so long, from 1979 to ’93, to reckon that he had finally got his Sonate de Requiem right. Whatever challenges he tackled along the way, the effort paid off handsomely. It resulted in a cello sonata as intricate and musically enchanting as Martinů's sonatas, and as rich in delights and angst as Debussy’s chamber gem.
The death of the composer’s mother is memorialized in this Sonate de Requiem, which is clearly the CD’s major work. Even so, the Piano Trio is strong enough to have a competing recording paired with Shostakovich’s second, on the Triton label (TRI 331128).
The Sonate takes long musical breaths but seldom shies from plunging into near-silent intervals within them. The opening movement’s allegro episode includes dance-like passages that do not even hint at anything like Bartókian revelry. Instead, they provide pause between weighty lentos that are all the more affecting for being unusually slow. However tuneful and full of incident, expect little that is joyous or hurried in most of this predominantly dark, serious music—as befits a requiem.
Besides high-octane drama, Greif’s work makes demands for considerable subtlety and nuance from its players, yet Bertrand and Amoyel are well up to the task. While the piano tinkles along when not hammering out ominous refrains, the cello occasionally engages in unusual sonic effects. In the first movement this includes buzzing eerily, and, in the third, glissandos akin to whistling.
In the second movement, Notturno, each instrument’s musical line marches to a different beat and grows so wayward and dissonant as to become almost thematically unrelated. Yet Greif binds things together very firmly, and does this somehow through this very obliqueness and dissonance. The piano’s ominous gait carries on into the next movement, a tempestuous Presto vivo; Piu lento, where the keyboard strides against the cello’s tunes, revelling in a thicket of knotty entanglements, in vivid strife with the cello. This movement, and the entire sonata, also shares with Martinů’s set of three a near-perfect balance between cello and piano.
Following so much harmonic tension, in the final movement, Quasi cadenza, the purest release finally arrives. Graced with almost infantile simplicity, it is limpid as a pool of spring water, its wispy development breathtaking with seeming obviousness.
This is a grand sonata that, once grasped, will not be easily forgotten.
The opening movement of Greif’s Piano Trio is almost as rich with musical invention as the Sonate’s. How odd that this 9-minute movement, called De Profundis, should start with a piano slamming out chords with such joyful violence. This also raises expectations about what may follow, yet what does manages to more than just overcome the apparent crudeness of that start. Greif succeeds in doing this with passages of meandering strings that alternate tense and brooding episodes.
Greif was French with Polish roots, and his Jewish father’s internment at Auschwitz is said to have affected him deeply. His music’s strong dramatic sense is only occasionally leavened by brief snatches of release—for instance, within the Piano Trio’s otherwise near-somber first movement. These episodes recall the ironies of Shostakovich, where humour never quite morphs into levity. Greif’s penchant for unusual sonic effects also shows in this Trio’s first movement, where the violin wails enigmatically while the piano marks time. Sotto voce strings screech and scratch eerily in the unsettling Java that follows, expressing exotic colours that vie against the keyboard’s splashing.
The Romanze is the second crystalline movement on this disc. The cello’s tender melodies against the piano’s tranquil beat make for enchanting music of unabashed warmth. The Trio’s exceptionally slow initial pace is resumed in the closing Alla breve, which becomes a racy marvel as the strings gradually coax the piano’s staid pace to make for a grand culmination.
Despite the interest in instrumental exploration, Greif’s music is traditional and not recondite. That is, it is not experimental, as one might consider Ligeti’s or Lutosławski’s, and in coherence it is nowhere as elusive as the music of Boulez or even Xenakis. Urgency and alarm characterize his allegros, which are seldom as happy as the term suggests. The two other Greif works I have listened to closely—a Sonata for Two Cellos, “The Battle of Agincourt,” and a String Quartet with Voice (singing three Shakespearean Sonnets)—share the same sharp dissonance, harmonic strengths, and engaging felicity.
His music is Gallic in its exquisite crafting, in charm and gracefulness. In inventiveness, these two works add up to far more than one normally expects. Grażyna Bacewicz perhaps comes quickest to mind, having also composed ‘small’ works charged with near-symphonic strengths—such as her Second Piano Sonata and her Fourth Sonata for Violin and Piano.
Greif remains a largely unknown composer, but that should not last. His works are featured on a handful or more CDs, and more will appear as word trickles out. He is fairly well-represented on YouTube, and this CD (which won a Diapason d’Or) certainly attests to a voice simply too large to remain unappreciated. Surprisingly, you have been reading the first review of his music on Music on the Web International, the world’s largest review site for classical music.
Along with the praise Harmonia Mundi’s sound engineers deserve, all three players rate kudos for fine musicianship. Pascal Amoyel on piano, Emmanuelle Bertrand on cello, and Antje Weithaas on violin are fully committed to these works, and advocate for them at the deepest artistic level. The piano plays very significant rôle in Greif’s Sonate, but Bertrand deserves singling out for the considerable demands made on the cello. She is challenged on a broad range of musical chops, and turns out a truly engaging, sometimes bone-chilling reading.
It must be said that Greif’s music has sharp elbows, and is probably not for everyone. Most of his compositions remain unrecorded, making for a list that includes works for choral groups, such as a Petite Messe Noire, a chamber opera, and an a cappella Requiem for double choir. Besides two symphonies, his orchestral output includes concertos for solo violin, for cello, and another for piano, violin, viola and cello. By the time of his death at 50, Grief had also composed a sonata for oboe and harpsichord, four string quartets, a piano quintet, many songs for voice and piano, no fewer than 23 solo piano sonatas, and three sonatas for two pianos.
A YouTube version of Greif’s Le Tombeau de Ravel, for four-hands piano, to this ear lacks the artfulness or finesse one might expect when invoking this composer. Yet the contrapuntal marvels on this CD, and in his arresting Sonata for Two Cellos (Harmonia Mundi ZZT 100410), raise great expectations about Greif’s two-piano sonatas. A recording would top this enthusiast’s wish-list, since with a bit of luck they might be in the class of Hindemith’s and Stravinsky’s two-piano sonatas, or the latter’s Concerto for Two Solo Pianos.
Alongside my ‘discovery’ earlier this year of Karol Beffa (review), a living French composer of extraordinary promise, Greif is my topmost musical find this year—and for several before it. Fans of current ‘classical’ who seek beautifully crafted music of lasting worth need not think twice about splashing out on this CD.'' MusicWeb International