15 Little Variations for Piano
Sixteen Songs (6 selections)
36 Greek Dances (Six arr. for piano)
Constantinidis arr. Stephanidis
Songs from Eros ke Thanatos
Songs from Epiphania
Alexandra Gravas (mezzo-soprano)
Demosthenis Stephanidis (piano)
Reviewed by: Hayden Jones
Reviewed: 11 November, 2004
Venue: Purcell Room, London
Four UK and two world premieres formed the majority of an evening of (almost) all-Greek works performed by Alexandra Gravas and her Orama Ensemble with pianist and composer Demosthenis Stephanidis. The performance with works spanning the entire spectrum of popular and contemporary Greek music was, in part, a celebration to mark the centenary of the birth of Nikos Skalkottas.
Appearing in a Purcell Room blanketed in total darkness, Stephanidis sat down at the piano. He turned on a large desk lamp that was angled over the keyboard – the bright white light giving an uneasy sense of intimacy. It was as if we had been invited into his private study to hear Skalkottas’s 15 Little Variations for Piano.
Lasting just over five minutes, Little Variations was written in 1927 and encompass a wide range of musical ideas; at times sparse and desolate, at others savage and even sometimes jazzy but always mesmerizing. The stark setting only added to the music’s austerity: the imposing monochrome white light/black room reinforcing the sinister nature of the music. Stephanidis was perhaps a little heavy-handed in his playing, but there was no doubt that he felt a strong connection to the music and gave a convincing performance.
Stephanidis later returned to perform Six Greek Dances arranged from the orchestral 36 Greek Dances, Skalkottas’s best-known work. He returned to them several times during his lifetime to create different arrangements or transcriptions. Stephanidis’s no-holes-barred, full-throttle performance was one of the evening’s highlights with pounding rhythms, effortless glissandos and pianistic fireworks rebounding off the otherwise gloomy walls of the Purcell Room: I wished I’d brought a bottle of ouzo and a few plates to ceremoniously smash in time to the music!
German-born mezzo-soprano Alexandra Gravas founded the Orama Ensemble in 1999 with the intention of performing Greek contemporary music and to commission new works. There is no doubting her musical conviction but there was a cool air of detachment to her performances. The six examples from Skalkottas’s Sixteen Songs are rarely performed. These powerful pieces use texts by the Greek writer Hrissos Esperas and were composed in 1941/2. Skalkottas was equally at home in using folk-music elements, tonal music and serial and atonal bases. The Songs, mainly atonal, retain a strong lyrical quality. Gravas performed them well with her smooth and dark timbre, but there was a real lack of involvement in her singing. I remained unconvinced until the last song, “Apopse” (Tonight) – it was here that Gravas finally started to convey the lament in the music: eyes closed, emotive hand-gestures and facial expressions revealed more than just words and notes on a page. The Orama Ensemble’s pianist Nigel Foster was sensitive to the musical nuances and difficulties of the Songs (with a much more discriminating technique when compared to Stephanidis).
Yannis Constantinidis was a contemporary and close friend of Skalkottas who studied music in Dresden and Berlin with Kurt Weill, among others. His piano pieces under the title of Dodecanecian Suite No 1 based on Greek folksongs occupy a soundworld similar to that of Ravel and are well worth investigating. Stephanidis took some of these pieces and interspersed them with excerpts from “Songs of Expectation” to form a suite entitled A Tribute. This sensitive arrangement for voice, clarinet, piano and string quartet was a total success. It was fascinating to hear how Stephanidis had taken melody and harmony, extended it and reassigned it to the ensemble with such care and delicacy. With the warm yet melancholic songs we were also treated to some of Gravas’s most heartfelt and deeply moving performances. However, it was a shame that the string players’ intonation was not of the same standard.
Non-Greek Junnosuke Yamamoto’s setting of George Seferis’s eponymous poem “Epitaph” was the evening’s most left-of-centre performance. Expressionistic and sparse with an unorthodox use of vocal techniques – whistling, tongue-clicking, and shouting – the performance was a success, though I’m not sure the piece itself worked as a whole. The string ensemble appeared to be much more at ease with this piece though once again the playing was, on the whole, disappointing.
AERIKON by Stephanidis is based on the poem “Mikri Medea” (Little Medea) by George Moleskys. The poem depicts a desolate landscape inhabited by the ethereal, god-like winged creature Aerikon. With its deeply sinister opening Stephanidis created a vivid picture of Aerikon’s eerie domain. This episodic piece, which was at times rhapsodic and dramatic with long, purely musical sections, was a feast for the ears and imagination, Gravas conveying the drama of the poet and composer’s vision.
Greek-American composer George Tsontakis’s setting of Seferis’s poem “Rima” was the most satisfying of the new works. It’s spellbinding opening with hushed string harmonics and expressive sustained chords gave Gravas and the Orama Ensemble an opportunity to show some real expressive warmth in this slow-moving, consoling elegy about the lost days of youth.
Mikis Theodorakis is Greece’s best-known living composer whose melodies are a part of everyday life for many Greeks. Gravas and Orama were at their most expressive in these heartfelt songs, each more lachrymose than the last.