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Manolis KALOMIRIS (1883-1962)
Triptych for Orchestra (1937-1940) [22.16]
Symphony No 3 ‘Palamian’ in D minor for orchestra with dramatic recitation (1955) [30.39]
Three Greek Dances (1934) [8.46]
The Destruction of Psara (1949?) [1.34]
Nikitas Tsakiroglou (orator)
Athens State Orchestra/Byron Fidetzis
rec. Athens Concert Hall Recording Centre, 20 June-2 July 2005. DDD
NAXOS 8.557970 [63.15]

 


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 works.

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 (nla).

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 above.

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.

Gary Higginson

see also Review by Hubert Culot

 

 

 


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