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Seen and Heard International Concert Review

Hellenic Music Festival in Athens: Koundourof, Vrondos, Christou, Christodoulou, Skalkottas, Geoffrey Douglas Madge, Piano, Athens Municipality Symphony Orchestra, Nikos Christodoulou, Conductor, Megaron, Athens, 10 May 2005 (ARi)

Aristotelis Kountourof (1896-1969)
Symphonietta (1934)

Haris Vrondos (b. 1951)
Monologos, for string orchestra (2003), WP

Jani Christou (1926-1970)
Toccata for piano and orchestra (1962)

Nikos Christodoulou (b. 1959)
Fones II, for strings (1988)

Nikos Skalkottas (1904-1949)
a. Concert for piano and orchestra No.1 (1931)
Two dances from the cycle “36 Greek Dances” (1936)
b. Chiotikos c. Mazochtos

From the above names, a non-Greek classical music lover might be familiar with one or two. And right he maybe, since the Greek musical status quo has singularly failed to promote over the years its “classical” composers and their works, even in Greece. It is fortunate that the Swedish label BIS started six years ago a marvelous Skalkottas cycle on CD which is internationally acclaimed and, for the better, widely distributed.

This concert was the fifth in a series of nine concerts within the first cycle of the “Greek Music Celebrations”, which are scheduled to take place every year; a really promising initiative. In the past, and since the mid-60s, such cycles were mostly dedicated to the Greek composers of the Avant-garde; this one is being extended for the first time to a wider time frame.

Aristotelis Kountourof was born in Georgia and studied composition in his hometown’s Conservatory, where in 1922 he received the first prize in composition by a jury headed by Ippolitov-Ivanov with whom he studied in Moscow. In 1930 he was settled in Greece. Among his pupils were Iannis Xenakis, Odysseas Dimitriadis and Vangelis Papathanassiou. His “Symphonietta” (1934) was rewarded by the Academy of Athens (president of the Jury was Dimitri Mitropoulos) and premiered in Frankfurt in 1939. It is a neotonal work, richly and masterly orchestrated, predating Shostakovich’ sarcastic passages of the Ninth symphony. The Orchestra and its soloists, meticulously rehearsed by Mr. Christodoulou, responded to this work’s demands to perfection.

Haris Vrondos is quite active in Greece, the composer of four operas and an important amount of orchestral and vocal compositions. His “Monologos” for string orchestra is an austere and deeply personal work which deserves more performances so as to be understood and appreciated (the whole series was professionally recorded and, hopefully, they will be released in the future).

Janni Christou is a unique figure in the musical world. He studied piano and theory with Gina Bachauer, philosophy with Wittgenstein and Russel and composition with Reidlich. (Information about Christou is located at http://www.janichristou.org.) The “Toccata” was premiered posthumously on 23 April 1973 at Oxford Town Hall in the frame of the English Bach Festival. The soloist was Georges Pludermacher and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra was conducted by Elyakum Shapirra. It is a 14 minute firework composed within Christou’s own “pattern” of technique and which introduces new ideas into piano playing (e.g. no thumbs) allowing for incredibly fast execution and rhythmical accuracy.

This work has been in Geoffrey Douglas Madge’s repertoire since 1980 when he played it in Athens on 14 September in a concert dedicated to Christou’s memory ten years after his death (he died in a car accident the night of his birthday in Athens on 8 January 1970). Madge’s accomplishment in this work was astonishing bringing out both the power of this marvelous work as well as the impact it can have on an audience. As with all Christou’s output, only the concert hall experience can convey to the listener the mystical and metaphysic ambience of the composer’s world. The only commercial recording of this work features the pianist Nelly Semitekolo, who belonged to Christou’s inner cycle and studied the work with him. She was present at this concert and congratulated Madge backstage for his miraculous execution.

After intermission Mr. Christodoulou conducted his own “Fones II” (Voices II) for string orchestra. It is an interesting, esoteric composition which is not immediately accessible, and as with the Vrondos’ composition deserves further performances so as to be fully appreciated


Skalkottas’ First Piano Concerto received its Greek premiere in this concert. It was composed in 1931 while Skalkottas was in Arnold Schoenberg’s class in Berlin, its historical significance being that it is the first concerto for piano composed in the 12-tone technique (Schoenberg’s own piano concerto being written in 1936). When Skalkottas returned to Athens he left the unpublished score, as well as the totality of the works composed there, in his Berlin home. It was later rediscovered in Berlin by the pianist Georgios Chadjinikos.

Madge and Christodoulou repeated with the same enthusiasm and technical assurance the success of their world premiere recording in 1998 of this 20-minute concerto (BIS CD-1014). One admired the exposition of the main themes by the orchestra and Madge’s initial catalytic statements. He proceeded for the remaining five minutes of the first Allegro moderato movement with equal force and concentration. The Andante cantabile that followed is a dark piece of music, unpredictable and complex in its structure. But, as is usual with Skalkottas, the audience can enjoy it without having to understand it. There were beautiful contributions from the oboe, flute, horn, and trumpet sections. The final Allegro vivace has a strong dancing character which wonderfully underplays the stressed mood conjured by the second movement. Madge, in full compliance with the joyful character of this movement, and an orchestra in perfect shape under Christodoulou’s passionate guidance lead this performance to a fine conclusion.

The two Greek Dances by Skalkottas that followed (the second one offered twice also as an encore) belong to Skalkottas’ most significant compositional output, the 36 Greek Dances. Anybody who has listened to the highly praised BBC Symphony Orchestra complete set under Christodoulou’s baton, could agree that these dances deserve to be, at the very least, considered equal to those by Brahms and Dvorak (the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra under Michael Tilson Thomas offered one of them, “Syrtos”, as an encore during their concerts last year in Athens).

The Athens Municipality Symphony Orchestra has been trained by Nikos Christodoulou to perform Skalkottas’ highly virtuosic orchestral writing without neglecting their undisputed quality, namely the pure satisfaction they give to an audience’s ears and soul. It is hoped that this ensemble and conductor will bring to Greece the long-awaited renaissance to Greek musical life.

Alexandros Rigas

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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)