About this Recording
8.223810 - GREEF: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2

Arthur De Greef (1862–1940)
Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 2


The Flemish composer Arthur De Greef was born on 10th October 1862 in Louvain in Belgium. He was a very talented boy musically, and when only eleven years old won first prize at the local music school. His parents realised the necessity of sound technical training and enrolled him at the Royal Conservatory in Brussels. There the young De Greef studied piano under Louis Brassin, once the child prodigy and student of the famous Ignaz Moscheles. He studied counterpoint and composition under Joseph Dupont, Francois Auguste Gevaert and Fernand Kufferath. In 1879, then only seventeen years old, he graduated with the highest distinction, by chance together with Isaac Albeniz who was also a student there. De Greef then spent the next two years completing his studies under Franz Liszt in Weimar, a sure way to come into contact with the true romantic and with the authentic romantic way of playing. Arthur De Greef then travelled as a celebrated pianist throughout Europe and North Africa, and also gave a series of concerts with Camille Saint-Saëns. Talented composers began working for him and dedicated their compositions to him. These included Albeniz, who wrote a dedication to “my dearest friend De Greef, from his most enthusiastic admirer. In memory of our beautiful and stable friendship”. It was only around the age of thirty that De Greef started composing himself.

It is commonly said that you come to know someone through the company he keeps. If we consider the friends of Arthur De Greef, for example, we see how very highly his friends respected and appreciated him in his time, most certainly as a pianist and composer. His closest friends were Albéniz, Saint-Saëns, and especially Edvard Grieg. However Brahms, de Falla, Busoni, Pugno, Cortot, Paderewski, Rachmaninov, Ysaÿe, Gounod, Ambroise Thomas, Elgar and von Bülow can also be numbered among his close friends. To this impressive list can be added Caruso, Melba, Shalyapin, Gigli and many other great names in music. Arthur De Greef was internationally revered as a musician. He died at the age of seventy on 29th August, 1940, after a long illness.

Arthur De Greef composed his Piano Concerto No.1 in C minor in 1914 and dedicated it to Camille Saint-Saëns, who was not only honoured by this gesture but also predicted that the concerto’s fame would equal that of Edward Grieg’s. The prediction never came true and Saint-Saëns’ valued opinion shows how unjust history can sometimes be. Like his Second Concerto, this concerto is in C minor. One cannot really call this a virtuoso work, even though one needs to be a virtuoso to be able to perform it. De Greef’s great piano moments are not there to overwhelm, but were simply created and written to awaken feelings and dynamism.

The first movement of the piano concerto is marked Moderato. It opens with a rather sad theme in unison that alternates and is taken over by the piano with rich chords, sounding like a hymn. One notices the seemingly concertante style, in fact throughout the whole work, with question and answer, assent and rejection. The orchestra is not sentenced to simple accompaniment, but speaks to the keyboard, just as the piano chats informally with the orchestra. It is not surprising that harmonies and the occasional melodic influences of Liszt, Schumann and Grieg creep in. De Greef introduces and shapes all this in a truly personal manner.

The second movement, a Scherzo, is the most impressive. It carries the listener along spontaneously with a sense of well-being. It is full of happy colours, and is rhythmically lively and spirited, dancing, leaping and singing, as it takes its sparkling course.

The third movement is an Andante and comes over as a ballad, as a quiet tale. De Greef’s use of narrative is always discernible, not only in the piano sections but also, as can be heard here, in the beautiful cello solos. The mournful feeling is fully brought out in chromatic writing.

The fourth movement, Animato, is a tornado. The concert aficionado will watch the pianist in fascination. It is an excellent work for piano competitions, since besides the required fairy-tale technique, the pianist must possess the professionalism allowing him to bring to the surface all the music that it contains. The overwhelming finale calls for a standing ovation.

There is a noticeable gap between De Greef’s First and Second Piano Concerto, a gap, in fact, of twenty-six years. As regards style, nothing has changed. He has not allowed himself to be carried along on the musical currents of the day nor be influenced by the musical experiments around him. In his heart he was a late romantic, which is what he wanted to remain, and over the years he found his true identity. Besides an even greater compositional maturity, the difference between this concerto and the first one is a greater peace.

De Greef finished his Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat minor, dedicated to his pupil and friend Ren DeIporte, in 1930 at the Villa Caeciliain at the charming Belgian seaside resort of Middelkerke, lying half in the sand dunes and half in the polders, an oasis for meditation. The concerto has three movements, each of which has a poetical name, namely “Fear” (Angoisse), “Separation” and “Sursum Corda” (Let us lift up our hearts), the thoughts one has as one nears the age of seventy. The orchestral introduction of the first movement, Agitato, is rather long and ends with a dynamic climax that slowly fades. The piano then enters. The development of the lilting theme is simple romanticism, even in the more dramatic moments with octave leaps. The finest moments are the meditative conversations of the piano.

The second movement, Separation, marked Assez lent, sounds like a prayer, a spiritual. In the 1930s courage was needed to compose in this way, but the music remains beautiful to hear. The work as a whole is rather mournful, with here and there glimmers of hope. The finale is played by two quartets. First a chorale line from the horns, followed by a downward flattened seventh of the piano, sotto vocce, as a restful sigh, and ends ppp in an amazing chorale from the violins.

The third movement, Sursum Corda, Mouvemente et energique, is totally different in character. Orchestra and soloist encourage each other. The one keeps the other going, which sometimes leads to passionate repartee between piano and orchestra.

Fons de Haas
Translation by Simon Shrimpton

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