Naxos claim that
this disc comes in their ‘Greek Classics’ series. I assume that
this constitutes volume 1 as I have encountered no others thus
far. Kalomiris is a good place to start. Politics and Music
are not far apart in Greece and the way in which music has overcome
political trouble is also a part of these, in some ways, ground-breaking
I wonder who else
will eventually appear in this series. Here are a few names.
Theodore Antoniou (b. 1935). Mikis Theodorakis (b. 1925), he
of ‘Zorba the Greek’ and several rather overblown symphonies.
Nikos Skalkottas (1904-1949) whose music is appearing regularly
on Bis. Yannis Constantinidi (1903-1984) and Manos Hadjidakis
(1925-1994), well known in film music circles. These are just
a few composers whose names will, I hope, whet your appetite
for future volumes in this series.
Anyway, what of
Kalomiris? A description of his First Symphony recorded in the
1980s was that it was ‘bombastic and lacking in taste’. This
may be a problem to some listeners. Throughout the 20th
Century, Greek composers wanted to write music which had a distinct
Greek identity, especially at times of general oppression. They
did this by using traditional melodies, generally modal and
more especially by using dance rhythms from varying areas of
the country. When you put together these rather restricted tunes
with excitable, repeated rhythms and you crash them around the
piano as in Kalomiris’s Rhapsody No. 1 then you are bound to
sound bombastic, but that was not the original intention. Probably
power and determination and as you will discover, courage, were
meant to be expressed. There are passages which are heavy and
unsubtle and appear to be over-orchestrated. But let’s put this
problem of national musical language to one side and see what
the composer is trying to do. By the way Kalomiris’s Rhapsody
No. 1 was the first piece of his I ever came across. It was
on ‘Greek Piano Music’ played by Elena Mouzalas on Adda 581199
I am not especially
helped in the quest for Kalomiris information by the booklet
notes by Philippos Tsalahouris. This is one of those occasions
when it is surely better to tell us more about this music, so
completely unknown in Western Europe than about the Athens State
Orchestra or about the Byron Fidetzis a well-known conductor
of Greek Music and the actor Nikitas Tsakiroglou. The booklet
supplies us in addition, with a somewhat avuncular photograph
of Kalomiris and a rather sinister one of Tsakiroglou. Incidentally,
it’s thanks to the Naxos booklet notes that I now possess a
pair of reading glasses.
The Third Symphony
is in four movements and is dedicated to the Greek poet who
was something of a God to Kalomiris, Costis Palamas (1859-1943).
The recited text is provided in translation but it is difficult
to understand quite what it all means. It is almost a megalithic
piece, massive and formidable and yet was received with considerable
enthusiasm at its first performance. To quote the booklet the
work “stands as one of the greatest landmarks, not only of Greek
Music but also of Greek Art and beyond”. Quite a claim. Its
musical language is often modal. There is, melodically speaking,
an emphasis of the augmented 2nd interval which gives
Kalomiris’s melodies an eastern quality. The orchestration,
sometimes massive, sometimes impressionistic is always impressive
and communicating with precision a heart-on-sleeve passion typical
of the peoples of Greek. That passion is also typical of Palmas’s
vision for the Greek nation. As Kalomiris wrote “I set the Palming
Symphony as an altar, a monument of my faith to the everlasting
Greek art and the Poet who symbolises it”.
The ‘Triptych’ has
something of a tale to tell also. The booklet notes tell us
that Kalomiris was not actually Greek but Cretan and the work
is subtitled ‘Crete, in memory of a hero’ and originally ended
with a chorus, ‘To the liberation of Crete’. Its three movement
structure, with a huge central funeral march was first performed
on 28 February 1943 under difficult circumstances. That morning
Costas Palamas, idolised by Kalomiris and the nation in general
had been buried in Athens. This enabled a full-blown demonstration
to take place for freedom. Remember, Art and Politics in Greece
are closely intertwined. What did Greece need liberation from?
What the booklet fails to tell you is that from the 14th
Century until 1832, Turkey took over the country and dominated
its culture. The iron grip of that country when released gave
the native Greeks a sense of almighty freedom long-forgotten.
There was a succession of unstable governments until 1935 when
monarchy was restored. World War 2 resulted in further instability.
The work’s opening
prelude sets the mood of quiet and oppressive foreboding. Then
comes a funeral march of great intensity and an heroic finale.
When I played the opening to my niece, who happens to be a student
of Hellenic studies at university, she said that she wondered
when Charleton Heston might be gliding into view! The epic nature
of the music is always there and may not appeal to those of
you with a more ascetic disposition.
The ‘Greek Dances’
were gathered from differing sources in 1934. You may know several
by Skalkottas. These demonstrate more sinewy writing for the
woodwind, especially the oboe, are lusher in orchestration than
those by Skalkottas and emphasise the melodic traits mentioned
The last work listed
above is something of an oddity. Lasting a minute and a half
and with six lines of spoken text it sounds like the closing
moments of a film score. Its background, even its date of composition,
is something of a mystery. The text is by Dionysios Solomos
(1798-1857) who is best remembered for his ‘Hymn to Freedom’.
It describes “the utter grief but also the grandeur of the tiny
island “(of Psara) razed to the ground by Ottomans in 1824;
there we go: Art and Politics again.
To quote Patrick
Leigh Fermor (‘Roumeli’ published by John Murray, 1996): “Emotional
feeling for Greece is the country’s deepest conviction.”
So, I leave you
to decide for yourselves. At Naxos price this disc is worth
investigating but be prepared for an epic struggle.
see also Review
by Hubert Culot