Friday, August 13, 2010
Eat your heart out Wilhelm Furtwangler
In a commendable attempt to liven up the blogging silly season Alex Ross nominates a CD of Wilhelm Furtwängler's Piano Quintet as the worst recording ever made. Never one to refuse a challenge I respond with the CD seen above.
Odysseas Elytis (1911-1996) was one of the most important Greek poets of the twentieth century. After fighting against the fascist occupiers of Greece in World War Two he started writing the poem on which his reputation rests and which almost certainly won him the 1979 Nobel Prize for Literature. Axion esti (Worthy it is) is a contemporary epic which progresses forward through history to the liberation of Greece in 1944 and on to a vision of a more peaceful future. It was published in 1959 to great acclaim and in 1960 Odysseas Elytis was awarded the Greek national prize for lyricism.
Mikis Theodorakis responded to Elytis' masterpiece with his oratorio Axion esti, which was premiered in Athens in 1964. Like the poem on which it is based, Theodorakis' oratorio immediately achieved immense popularity in Greece with its patriotic tone, sacred Byzantine themes, Greek dances and use of ethnic instruments such as the buzuki and sanduri. In fact songs from Axion esti have become alternative Greek national anthems and are sung on patriotic occassions to celebrate resistance and the overthrow of injustice.
So far so good. But....... recordings of Axion esti made in Greece suffered from the limitations of the available musicians. So Theodorakis, who has never disguised his communist leanings, leapt at the chance to record his oratorio with top quality voices and the Youth Orchestra of the Dresden Philharmonic in what was the GDR (East Germany) in 1982. Theodorakis is seen below conducting the concert in Leipzig at which the live recording of Axion esti was made.
Sadly, at this point it all goes wrong; because Odysseas Elytis' prize winning celebration of the Greek language was translated into German for the Leipzig recording to become Lobgepriesen sei. I do not need to say much more other than that the Berlin Classics CD, which is conducted by the composer, is a complete recording which include lengthy readings of texts recalling the fascist occupation of Greece, all delivered in German.
On paper it probably seemed a good idea - a Hellenic vision of a more peaceful future delivered by a German orchestra and voices. But the result, as the young players plod through the Greek dances after a four minute monologue declaimed in German, is not a good idea at all. Taking the charitable view it is more a vision of ouzo fuelled German holiday makers in a Corfu taverna. For the sake of international relations I will not take the uncharitable view
This Leipzig recording of Axion esti is one of the few discs in my collection that have me laughing out loud, then screaming in frustration, and finally leaping for the stop button, all in rapid succession. To capture the true flavour of Axion Esti in Greek in full-on patriotic mode watch a video of two songs sung in Greek to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Battle of Crete via this link. Now compare it with the excerpt below from the Leipzig performace. Eat your heart out Wilhelm Furtwängler.
* In fairness, Theodorakis' Axion esti does have some beautiful moments. But, for me, it does not achieve the spiritual peaks, even when sung in Greek, reached in his inexplicably neglected Requiem or the moving intimacy of his setting of poetry for voice and guitar.
This post is available via Twitter @overgrownpath. Yes, I bought the Berlin Classics CD of Axion esti. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk