The Greek guitarist Eleftheria Kotzia made a welcome return to the Greenwood Centre in a varied and quite splendidly played program of music from South America, Spain, Germany and Greece, all sharing a common theme of the dance. First came the tango- and malambo-based preludes of the Argentine, Maximo Diego-Pujol (b. 1957; featured on Ms Kotzia's first CD "The Blue Guitar", Pearl SHE CD 9609), then Villa-Lobos' evocation of a Brasilian street band, Chôro no. 1 in E minor, followed by the Prelude, Allemande, Gavottes and Gigue of J S Bach's G minor Lute Suite-played here on the guitar but itself a transcription of a suite for cello-and finally the Fourth Greek Suite of Ms Kotzia's erstwhile teacher, Dimitri Fampas (1922-96).
Diego-Pujol's 3 Preludes made a highly effective opener. There is not a little of the shadow of cult tango-composer Astor Piazzolla about the first two, Tristango and Preludio Triston. The first has a roughly A-B-A-B design, alternating a sad, slow music that seems to have a catch in its throat, with a faster, more rhythmic dance. The central prelude is wistful, though its middle section is fitfully more animated. Ms Kotzia used the whole range of the strings to vary the colours, fingering close to the saddle as well as over the fingerboard, to produce some beautiful effects. The closing Candombe en mi fuses the more African elements in Latin American music into a colourful dance, although the piece covers diverse moods, some quite quiet. The set demands very clean articulation and duly received it.
Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) is the most celebrated South American composer and his Chôro no. 1 (1930) is one of the most celebrated guitar classics from the last century. In essence a 4½-minute rondo, it reflects rather than depicts the street music of Rio de Janeiro. Eleftheria Kotzia gave a personally characterful account, avoiding (at times only just) an overly mannered interpretation, pushing and pulling the tempi in places to good effect. She then followed it with a real surprise (not featured on the published programme): the recently discovered Valse Concerto no. 2-"Concert Waltz no. 2"-written as early as 1917. Dating from the same year as his extraordinary orchestral ballet-cum-tone poem Uirapurú, this waltz is a trifle, in style closer to other chamber and instrumental pieces of the time. Its atmosphere is late Romantic, the nationalistic air of a more conventionally European cast as one finds in Villa-Lobos' contemporary piano trios and cello pieces. The Valse is a good exemplar of his style at the time, its rather trite themes-after a deliberately overblown introduction-subjected to all manner of eccentric treatments. Ms Kotzia, who gave the New York premiere of the piece in October 2000, played with great authority.
The Villa-Lobos section of the recital concluded with the final two of the Twelve Studies, some of the most difficult items in the repertoire, but where the real Villa-Lobos is to be heard. No. 11 was given a dramatic, passionate reading, every effect calculated and executed with precision. The Twelfth followed in like fashion, although the noise from the left hand's sliding up and down the strings was a touch distracting. This, however, may have been over-emphasised by the otherwise discreet amplification used throughout to compensate-very successfully-from the rather flat acoustic of the recital room.
The first half concluded with the suite of three Spring Songs by one of Ms Kotzia's compatriots, Evangelos Boudounis (b. 1950). His roots are ultimately in rock music and there is a distinct of rock and blues in these recompositions and allusions to Greek popular tunes by Theodorakis and others. However artless the pieces sounded, each put the player on her mettle: Dithesio, with its fluid motion and animated central section; Stahi, producing a very different, asymmetrical movement like running water, framed by a sentimental introduction and coda; and the alternately fiery and gossamer study, Fedra, with its curious little coda where the guitarist intones a folk-like tune. Like the Diego-Pujol Preludes, Boudounis' suite requires a wide range of colours which Ms Kotzia, in what was apparently its UK premiere, produced with finesse.
The contrast at the start of the second half could scarcely have been greater: the sublime Lute Suite in G minor (BWV995) of J S Bach. Overall, this was given as good a live account as one could reasonably wish for. The Prelude flowed beautifully along in true Bachian fashion, and the guitar's natural colouring contrived to suggest that old Johann Sebastian had been born in Iberia rather than Germany. If the Allemande was a touch jerky at times, the Gavottes and Gigue gambolled most fluently with never a contrapuntal foot out of place.
This was succeeded by Leyenda ("Legend") by Isaac Albéniz (1860-1909), a piece sounding so natural on the guitar that one would suppose rather that its piano original-in the suite Recuerdos de viaje, Op.71 (1887)-was the transcription. (It was not declared which of the various arrangements for guitar, e.g. those of Segovia, Romero, Byzantine, Parkening, was being played.) At times, Eleftheria Kotzia used her whole body to control the timbres, especially of the strummed chords.
The concluding Fourth Greek Suite by Fampas made a splendid finale, its outer foot-tapping movements framing a marvellously evocative tone picture, Ravinas ("Gorges"), where the instrument really does sing. And for an encore, Ms Kotzia played another Fampas miniature, The Country of the Centaurs, another atmospheric albeit more Spanish-sounding study with hints of Greek rhythms at its heart. (Incidentally, the centaurs seemed more like the stargazers of Harry Potter than the rowdy, wild horsemen of myth.)
The programme as a whole was very well thought through, showcasing Ms Kotzia's fine musicianship and technique. It posed a series of challenges, requiring great control and concentration, and flexibility of tone-colour. Eleftheria Kotzia again showed just why she is so highly regarded with performances marked by clarity of expression, precision of articulation and a dazzling array of colours. True, the amplification did make the bass string a little over-resonant at times, but the gains in weight and balance of sound more than compensated. A truly fine recital.