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Olivier GREIF (1950-2000)
Piano Quintet, Op. 307, ‘A Tale of the World’ (1994)
Syntonia Quintet
rec. 2020, Paris

This isn’t my first encounter with the composer Olivier Greif. I’m very fond of his Sonate de Requiem for cello and piano, which I sought out on the basis of a rave review by Bert Bailey in these pages back in 2016. For those unfamiliar with Greif, he was born in Paris in 1950 of Polish-Jewish parentage. His musical studies took place at the Paris Conservatoire and the Juilliard School in New York. His father was an Auschwitz survivor, and Greif composed several Holocaust-themed works. For most of his life, in addition to composing, he taught composition and directed music festivals such as the Académie-Festival des Arcs. Having suffered some health problems he died suddenly at his home in Paris in 2000, aged only 49.

The Quintet was commissioned by the Kuhmo Festival, Finland with the intention of being premiered in 1994. It was delayed a couple of years until 1996 due to the composer’s health problems and those a year later of Cellist Seppo Kimanen, founder of the Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival. The work is constructed in five movements, played without a break, to form one continuous musical canvas. Greif’s intention was to rid it of a distinct form that would predictably unfold. He had a more evolutionary concept in mind. He states in the text he provided for the premiere that “It had to be a work that could contain the whole world, or at least give that illusion to one who hears it” – hence the title ‘A Tale of the World’. So, he embroiders diverse texts into the fabric of the music. These are spoken or sung by the performers themselves, a feat in itself. The texts are drawn from such sources as: the Bhagavad-Gītā (a 700-verse Hindu scripture), Marcel Proust, Norbert von Hellingrath, Matsuo Bashō, Friedrich Hölderlin and Olivier Greif himself. The languages include Sanskrit, French English, Italian and German. These are provided, in full, at the end of the booklet.

Three of the five movements bear titles; 1) De profundis; 2) Le Cercle des mondes; 5) En Soph. Each is very different in character. The opening De profundis employs a Bhagavad-Gītā text and, as such, the music has an exotic, Oriental flavor, with relentless percussive rhythmic patterns. Movement 2 spotlights the two violins with interjections from the other instruments. It has a solo Bach flavor, viewed through a prism. Movement 3 is spiky and percussive, with plenty of pizzicato. The following movement is on similar lines. The final movement injects an element of calm into the proceedings. In the closing pages of the Quintet, the music dies away to nothing, leaving the listener in a haven of peace and serenity.

The work is beautifully recorded, with the vocal contributions clear and vivid. The Syntonia Quintet’s incandescent playing and utter commitment to the music is to be lauded. The booklet notes, in French and English, supply sufficient information to enable to the listener to negotiate this complex and challenging score.

Stephen Greenbank

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