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Theodor GRIGORIU (b. 1926)
Byzantium after Byzantium
Trinity Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (1994) [34.51]
The Great Passage for solo violin (1999) [18.13]
The Eternal Return Sonata for Violin and Piano (2004) [24.14]
Sherban Lupu (violin)
Sinfonia da Camera/Ian Hobson
Andrei Tanasescu (piano)
rec. live, 17 October 1986, Krannert Centre of the Performing Arts, University of Illinois (Concerto); 5-6 May 1999, (The Great Passage); 11-12 June 2005, Rumanian Radio. Bucharest (Sonata)
TOCCATA CLASSICS TOCC 0131 [77.32]

Let’s face it, what most of us don’t know about Rumanian classical music, its history and its present protagonists could be - and possibly has been - written in many books. I’m ashamed to say that Theodor Grigoriu was a name new to me; this despite his large oeuvre and the fact that very successful film music has never been far from his workload.
 
He is Rumania’s leading statesman, musically speaking and has a pedigree stretching back to the many of the great teachers and composers of the early 20th century - Enescu’s successor you might say. He is not really an innovative composer but certainly a highly original one who, through conventional means and a solid craftsmanship in orchestration and motivic development, has acquired his own style and indeed language. Initially based on modal scales and also in rhythms of folk music from his native country, his earlier works - which needless to say I have not been able to hear - have titles like Tatar Dance and Three Shepherd Songs but these have focused lately into bigger and more philosophically demanding compositions like the three recorded here.
 
I say three but really Byzantium after Byzantium is one big canvas composed during the course of ten years. The longest of the components is the first, the Trinity Concerto, the next is The Great Passage for solo violin and then the three movements of The Eternal Return for piano and violin. All three were composed for the present artist Sherban Lupu. The title emerges from a book by Nicolae Iorga which concerns itself with the influence Rumania has had on culture and social affairs in what was once called Byzantium.
 
The Trinity Concerto’s first movement is entitled The Song’s Long Journey up to Heaven and this is the longest movement of what is the longest piece of the three. It opens with bell sounds but what struck me was the dance-like quality of several of the ideas. Also notable, as the excellent but rather erudite booklet notes by Viorel Cosma - who has also written a book about the composer - indicate, “the transparent musical formulation required by the cinema” has washed off “in a dramatic way” in to the composer’s more serious works. This piece is full of colourfully exhilarating orchestration and includes a wide variety of subtly used percussion. The often changing tempi also serve to enhance the overall musical interest. The second movement is spacious and slow-moving. It has the title Oh Golgotha! and is a Threni. Its pace of harmonic change is wonderfully liquid. The third movement does not quite convince. It’s a sort of moto perpetuo and is entitled Diaphania which is a species of moth. Certainly its fleeting virtuosity for the soloist as he flies around the orchestra, ties in with the title. The live recording is almost entirely clear of extraneous noises.
 
For solo violin is The Great Passage the title of which comes from a cycle of poems In the Great Passage by the Rumanian Lucian Blaga. Movement 1 is what the composer calls An imaginary psalm subtitled ‘Lord stop the passage’, the passage being the long journey from life to death. The second part Murmur “evoked the barely discernable mutter of those who pray or read sacred texts”; the violin scrubs around searching for a correct phrase. The next is subtitled Long, Clouds have passed over the plains and the composer calls this a “mostly lyrical landscape” which uses melodic ideas from Enescu Third Violin Sonata; Grigoriu’s teenage String Quartet won the Enescu prize in 1944. Finally there’s a deliberately wild Epilogue subtitled ‘I kneel in the wind/There is no road which takes you back’. It’s startlingly exuberant and almost random in its direction. This really shows off Lupu’s extraordinary technique and commitment to this music and this composer.
 
To step at first into the world of the Violin Sonata The Eternal Return is like a summer shower after intense heat. The first movement becomes increasingly emotionally involved however and ideas dramatically pile in on top of each other. The title comes from Mircea Eliade’s book of the same name, which concerns myths, rituals and religious beliefs. The subtitle, which like all of them is the composer’s own, is ‘Icons from the Past: Unseen steps’. The second movement, which is faster and more scherzo-like with some astonishingly startling and virtuosic passages, is called Curtains of Oblivion and the composer adds ‘12 Interrupted fugitive variations’. My ear has not been able to detect the development of a theme but certain ideas do tend to return and are subdivided by some highly original textures. The ending is wonderfully throw-away. For the final section the composer tells us “the return is real but also illusory because it takes place in another kingdom; in my work it takes place in the ringing of bells”. This accounts for the subtitle ‘The Bells of Return: With brief evocations of Anton Pann’ whom the composer mentions was an influential Bulgarian poet (d. 1854). Again the ideas are contrasting and dramatic. It was bell-sounds, you might recall, that opened the first movement of the Trinity Concerto.
 
I can’t help but feel that the complex philosophical background to all three sections of the work, the often heady and violent but unconnected ideas and on occasions some beautiful and memorable ones, disguise the fact that the music lacks a consistent logical musical substance. This is in favour of shock tactics and a sort of ‘blinding with science’ outlook.
 
If all this appeals - and to many it will - then do look out for this superbly performed music. The recordings are close and realistic with just the piano in the sonata a little too close for my liking. If you feel a little too reserved about it as I do then I might suggest that Toccata are persuaded to record some more of Grigoriu’s orchestral works - perhaps the earlier ones - because that may well be where the novice to his music might prefer to begin.
 
Gary Higginson 

 

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