Although the Greek guitarist Eleftheria Kotzia is well known on the international touring circuit, having played around the globe (most recently in North America), she is probably most familiar still for her debut recording in 1989, which featured the critically acclaimed premiere on disc of the late Sir Michael Tippett's sonata, The Blue Guitar (1989; Pearl SHE CD 9609, along with the Five Preludes by Villa-Lobos, three by Pujol and pieces by Georges Delerue, Giorginakis Kiriakos and her teacher, Dimitri Fampas). Since then she has made further recordings, including a disc of Hellenic-inspired pieces by the British composers Stephen Dodgson, John Tavener and John Duarte alongside works by the Greek composers Gerassimos Miliaressis, Evangelos Boudounis, Kiriakos again and Theodorakis (Pearl SHE CD 9634). The latest is a (mostly) Latin American programme for Chandos (CHAN 9732), released on May 20th., 1999. It was therefore quite a coup for the Greenwood Classical Guitar Society to include her within its ongoing recital series.
Ms Kotzia chose a programme combining Latin items from the Chandos disc with several from her native Greece. The concert opened with two items from Argentinian composers: Hector Ayala (b. 1914) and the cult tango-composer Astor Piazzolla (1921-92). On the evidence of his South American Suite ("Serie americana"), Ayala is a traditionalist, without either the pioneering spirit of Ginastera or the mercurial genius of Villa-Lobos. His suite is an effective light music recital opener, ranging across the South American continent for its seven movements, though the concluding Malambo sounds emasculated when set against other noted examples of this lively ex-African dance.
Light music, deployed as a (mistakenly) pejorative term, is how many commentators have dismissed Piazzolla's music. While it may not be to everyone's taste, heard with an open ear the three tangos Ms Kotzia performed with élan -- Verano porteño ("Summer in Buenos Aires"), Rio Sena ("River Seine", i.e. the river of Paris) and La muerte del ángel ("Death of the angel") -- sounded like miniature tone poems, very tricky in execution with wide dynamic variances in the outer sections and wistful, lyrical interludes. These drew some of the best playing of the night, as indeed did the succeeding items by Ms Kotzia's compatriot, Evangelos Boudounis (b. 1950), which closed the first half. His rock-inspired study On the rocks, with its riffs and Bartók-like finger- and nail-drumming effects, is far more advanced in idiom than either of the Argentine works, and exercised Ms Kotzia's technique to the full.
On the rocks was followed by three of Boudounis' set of 8 Summaries, and Cocktail (both of which may be familiar from Elena Papandreou's 1995 Naxos recital, 8.554001, although Ms Kotzia recorded two of the Summaries herself, on Pearl SHE CD 9634). It is invidious, perhaps, to compare a live recital with a recorded performance (how many of us do precisely that when we hear "live" music, though?), and having reviewed recently the Papandreou disc (for a future issue of the quarterly Tempo) I could not help using the Papandreou accounts as yardsticks. Ms Kotzia held her own, overall; if things went rather awry in the first Summary, Cocktail here proved overwhelmingly more powerful.
With an assured and confident stage manner, Ms Kotzia provided brief introductions to each piece (the programme notices containing no details other than names otherwise). This also afforded her the opportunity to depart from the published programme and running order -- by her own admission something she is prone to do. Thus it was that we would hear only the Prelude of Bach's Third Lute Suite (the G minor, BWV 995), displaced to the centre-point of the second half of the recital, and not the entire work, allowing her to include all of the Ayala instead of just the two promised movements (I would have rather had Bach). The second half opened with one of many pieces written especially for her: Krysia Phorminx, Op. 54, by Italian-born Carlo Domeniconi (b. 1947). Translating loosely as "Golden Guitar", Krysia Phorminx is an atmospheric fantasia based on a fragment of music from the fifth century BC by Pindaros. A series of embellishments on this fragment take the form of interconnected studies, but Domeniconi manages to integrate the disparate elements into a musically satisfying structure. In Ms Kotzia's hands, I found this the most compelling item of all.
The programme concluded with arrangements of four Greek Dances: a Ballos from Kephalonia, a Kalamatianos from the Pelopponese, a Karaguna from Central Greece, and a sprightly, rather Spanish-sounding Susta from Crete. The Kalamatianos (a dance much beloved of the composer Skalkottas, for whom 1999 marks the fiftieth anniversary of his death, incidentally), was arranged by a colleague of mine from the pages of Gramophone, John Duarte, who celebrates his eightieth birthday this year; the others by Dimitri Fampas (b. 1921; the Karaguna and Susta are on Pearl SHE CD 9609). Oddly, the one that sounded the most Greek to my British ears was that arranged by Duarte. While the expressive definitiveness of the interpretations could not be doubted, the Ballos in execution seemed a touch halting. This might have been a trick of the acoustic in the circumstances, since -- unusually -- Ms Kotzia was placed not at one end of the hall, but edgeways on. While this succeeded in bringing the audience closer to her, it had the additional effect of some loss in definition and depth to the guitar tone. The gentle Karaguna was beautifully done, however, and the Susta rounded off the set well. A lively encore was provided by another item from the Chandos disc, Xôdó da Baiana ("Sweetheart") by Dilermando Reis (1918-76).
Guy Rickards (b. 1956) is a regular contributor to Gramophone and Tempo, and has written for a variety of other journals and periodicals, including the Times Literary Supplement, The Guardian, Classical Music and Finnish Music Quarterly. He is the author of two titles in Phaidon Press' 20th Century Composers series: Hindemith, Hartmann and Henze (1995) and Jean Sibelius (1997). Recently, he has written notes to three recordings of music by John McCabe and a life-and-works survey of the Greek composer Nikos Skalkottas for a forthcoming book on Greek Music, to be published by Harwood Academic Press. Rickards is the literary and musical executor of Harold Truscott (1914-1992); future plans include a volume of Truscott's selected writings on music, as well as a "Life and Works" study.