Olivier Greif was one of those musicians: he entered the Paris Conservatory at age ten, and in 1967, at the age of seventeen, won the first prize for composition. The bulk of his output is chamber music, largely sonatas for any combination of strings and piano and sometimes voice. His works are not only a product of the last half of the twentieth century in terms of their musical foundations, but also in terms of the engagement with spiritual matters that marked his adult life.
The Sonate de Requiem, for piano and cello, was written in 1979, after the death of the composer’s mother. The content reflects to a certain extent his study of Hinduism. As the title notes, its subject is death, as loss, as a journey, and as a meditation. The central portion, on death as a journey, is by far the longest and most complex, although the way the work is woven together, with themes repeated throughout, gives an organic unity to the composition. The opening, with the theme of loss stated by the cello solo, is a beautiful, melancholy passage, and leads to an extended fantasia that grows in complexity and richness as the work progresses. There are traces of American serial minimalism, itself derived from Eastern sources, as well as what might be references to Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler, two of Greif’s musical icons. (It’s worth noting that the Sonate, as presented in this recording, is the second, severely pruned version premiered in 1993; the original, at about 49 minutes, was perhaps too much of a good thing.) The three sections that Greif talks about in his notes on the piece are thematic rather than formal: it is cast as a four-movement work, although the formal breaks don’t seem to correspond to the sections that the composer conceived.
The Trio avec piano is a rather different creature. Composed twenty years after the Sonate, it is a significantly less restrained work, more adventurous and but to my mind somewhat tighter in concept. The entire composition is built on the four notes that designate a musical signature for Dmitri Shostakovich, another of Greif’s heroes. Greif notes that the title of the first movement, “De profundis,” provides the emotional tone for the entire work: despair. This is according to Greif; I don’t get that feeling from it at all. In fact, there is a significant change of mood in the piece, leading to what I can only interpret as a triumphant — or at least defiant — conclusion.
Aside from the somewhat challenging intellectual framework of these two pieces, I have to say I was intrigued and then captivated by them. I was not familiar with Greif’s music, and am very happy to have had the chance to listen. Equally rewarding were the composer’s own comments on the background and thematic considerations, which are not only clear, but actually illuminating. The vocabulary is definitely late twentieth-century modernist, but with some individual quirks that take it beyond that mode and into something a little richer. The performers — Pascal Amoyel, piano; Antje Weithaas, violin; and Emmanuelle Bertrand, cello — are to be commended for their intense and sympathetic performances. A definite thumbs up.
(Harmonia Mundi, 2006)