Greek Ikons of Light and Passion – 4 April

Violin Sonata [UK premiere]
In the Furnace of Lust [UK premiere]
Aphierosis [UK premiere]
The Snowman [UK premiere]
On a Ray of Winter Sun [World premiere]

Mina Polychronou (soprano)
Andrew Watts (countertenor)
The Composers Ensemble
Peter Wiegold

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 4 April, 2003
Venue: Purcell Room, London

In the UK at least, Greek post-war music tends to mean Xenakis and little else – making tonight’s concert, presented by the Hellenic Foundation for Culture, all the more worthwhile. Performances, as one would expect from the Composers Ensemble, were thoroughly responsive to the requirements of each piece. Stylistically, the range was wide, though a certain reticence of idiom was often evident.

With his impressive academic credentials, Periclis Koukos (born 1960) is clearly a figure of importance in Greece, and the Violin Sonata (1997) – written in memory of his father – is a vibrant work recalling the folk amalgams of mature Bartók. The main ideas, expressed in a sustained Largo introduction, were carried across an incisive Allegro and intense Adagio before the finale traversed the extremes of Grave and Presto while accumulating momentum in the process. Powerfully realised by Adrian Adlam and Clive Williamson, it would be good to hear more of this composer.

Whereas In the Furnace of Lust suggested the music of George Kouroupos (born 1942) to be enjoyable but unmemorable. These three settings of anonymous 16th-century Cypriot poets (no texts or translations) dwell on unrequited love in an elegant and poetic manner – though the very nature of the music, as likeable as it was undemanding, suggested no hidden depths were being tapped. Happily, the vivid and characterful singing of Mina Polychronou largely made up for this shortcoming.

The most senior composer to be featured, Theodore Antoniou (born 1935) is also the most radical. His Aphierosis (Dedication) from 1984 for the 70th birthday of George Perle utilises the instrumental line-up of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire to vivid and imaginative effect, over two brief but complementary movements – fast and rhythmically intricate, then speculative and a touch ominous. Lucid and understated music, confirming that the example of the American composer has been a fruitful one.

The title of the song-cycle by Giorgos Koumentakis (born 1959) may be wrongly suggestive to English speakers. The Snowman charts the dream-journey of a man in a strange land, the contextual past he creates for himself and the unreality of it all that causes him to ’melt, like ice’. Elena Penga’s poems (sung to her own translation), pithy and associative verse, are given a subtle and translucent treatment by Koumentakis. The keening countertenor line was soulfully, if a little awkwardly projected by Andrew Watts, though co-ordination of voice and ensemble (and within the ensemble) at times seemed unfocused, leaving a thoughtful but indistinct impression – perhaps as was intended.

And so to the world premiere of On a Ray of Winter Sun (1996) by Nestor Taylor (born 1963) – a Greek composer frequently resident in the UK. The poems by George Seferis, dealing with the emergence of light and warmth out of starkness and desolation, seem almost a paradigm for the Greek psyche – and call for a wider and deeper range of expression than was evident here. Polychronou gave another confidently projected rendering (UK agents should be taking note), and Peter Wiegold directed the expanded ensemble with conviction, but there is surely an emotional dimension to the words that eluded Taylor’s music – engaging and sincere as it was.

Overall, an uncertain but sympathetic overview of current Greek music, in a format that the Hellenic Foundation will hopefully continue (George Zervos, Harris Vrondos anyone?). Indeed, with the centenary of Nikos Skalkottas and the 85th birthday of Giorgos Sisilianos in the near future, there’s much to be done to give modern Greek music the presence it warrants on the UK concert scene.

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