< Back

"The Athens State Orchestra, a revelation"

Tuesday, 7 September 2021

Review by Lavinia Coman posted on the Enescu Festival website as “European musical contributions”.

The programme performed by the distinguished Athens State Orchestra on the afternoon of the Festival’s eighth day, September 4, was extremely varied stylistically. Before they began, the conductor, Stefanos Tsialis, asked for a minute's silence in memory of Mikis Theodorakis, the composer of the unforgettable music from Zorba the Greek, who had passed away two days earlier at the venerable age of 96. Then, when the concert began, I heard the orchestra perform the Five Greek Dances by Nikos Skalkottas (1904–1949). A distinguished student of Arnold Schönberg who would later research Greek traditional music, the composer achieved an osmosis between the serialism of the Second Viennese School and his life-long passion for authentic folk music in these pieces. It is because of his unwavering preference for the folk idiom that Skalkottas is considered a genuine “Bartok of Greece". The five dances selected from the cycle of 36 he composed in 1931–1936 showcase various essential elements of Greek traditional music. In their magnificently intense performance, the ASO imbued the first—Peloponnesian—dance with energy and joie de vivre, with a lyrically sensitive middle section. The second dance, the Epirote I, had a playful, nimble feel to it reminiscent of our own Ciocârlia [stork]. The third, the Epirote II, was played slowly with complex harmonies, having been preceded by an unscored introduction on the flute in the rhythmically free, highly ornamented, improvisational style we know from our Rumanian doina, which was subsequently picked up by the clarinet and then by the horn. The fourth, the Hostianos, was played quickly, with vigour, grace and power, with the brass ringing out to the accompaniment of the tympani. The final dance, the Kleftikos, was also played fast at a playful tempo, in a daring virtuoso performance. The score gave composer and orchestra the opportunity to deliver an outstanding performance which was rounded off with a melody from a great feast.

The next part of the programme was dedicated to the first public performance since its première 121 years ago of a work which Enescu composed between 1893 and 1898, which is to say in adolescence. Back then, in the spring of 1900, the pianist Theodor Fuchs performed the Concert-fantasia for piano and orchestra (no opus number) in Bucharest with the Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by George Enescu himself. In honour of that performance, the pianist Saskia Giorgini played her solo part with great skill, incorporating it harmoniously into the symphonic whole. It is worth noting that the 36-year-old musician, the winner of numerous distinguished international prizes and awards, is preparing a release from AMAZON CD which will include both the Opus 24, No. 3 Sonata and the Opus 18 Suite by the Romanian master. When asked how she approached this music, Ms Giorgini replied that Enescu is her favourite composer, which explains her presence here at the festival playing an early work which testifies so eloquently to the great composer's prodigal genius. In response to the prolonged and thunderous applause, the pianist performed a moving encore: her own inspired piano version of Rachmaninoff’s song In the silence of the secret night.

The second half of the programme was given over in its entirety to the Symphony in D minor by César Franck (1882–1890). We will note this amazing coincidence: Cesar Franck completed his only symphony in 1888, the same year in which the Rumanian Athenaeum opened in Bucharest. The Symphony in D minor stirred up a long-lasting controversy in Paris following its première. The public split into two opposing camps. Ultimately, the musical world would conclude that the symphony's successful melding of the symphonic architecture of the German tradition with the melodic flexibility and chromatic riches of French music marked it out as a work of genius, but it would take some time. The work also masterfully implements the cyclical principle of symphonic thought. Through this cyclical process, the composer sought to allude to the progression from darkness to light as a victory for joy and hope over sorrow. These bold innovations in symphonic structure would earn César Franck the iconic position he occupies still within French Romanticism. The performance bestowed upon us by the Athens State Orchestra illuminated all his ideas on the arrangements of motifs, repetition of themes and circular structure in truly superlative fashion. Speaking about the orchestra, which was founded in the late 19th century, its conductor Stefanos Tsialis declared it to be a highly flexible, impulsive and emotional ensemble.

Souls charged with the intensity of the musical experience, the members of the audience found it hard to pull themselves away from the musicians on stage, whose total devotion to the performance had conveyed such a luminous message.