Classical: `Seeing' is believing - or else

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`Greece in Britain' Festival

QEH, South Bank Centre, London

"The wealth and diversity of contemporary Greek culture" is the intended message of the Greece in Britain festival, which set off on its six-month odyssey on Wednesday in the QEH. In which case it could have had a more auspicious start. In the first half the London Sinfonietta, Greek Byzantine Choir and cantor Lycourgos Angelopoulos performed two works by living Greek composers: Nomoi by Dimitris Perzakis and Rodanon by Michalis Adamis - and pretty pallid they were too. Both works blend soft-modernist instrumental styles with traditional Greek sounds (the singing of the cantor, with its strangely un-Western bending of pitch; the chanting of the choir). Yet, although the instrumental music clearly echoes Greek dance and cantilation, the blend is no more complete or effective than in an inadequately shaken vinaigrette. Put it beside the kind of genuinely traditional music performed by the Greek Byzantine Choir in the second part of the concert and its insipid half-and-halfness was only heightened. It was enough to set one's palate aching for the refreshing, spiky modernism of Xenakis or Skalkottas - or even, perhaps, for Nana Mouskouri.

But between Nomoi and Rodanon came something rather more interesting: the UK premiere of John Tavener's Vlepondas. The Greek title means "seeing" and the text - put together by Tavener's spiritual advisor and artistic collaborator, Mother Thekla - opposes two classic stories on the theme of sight. Oedipus gouges out his eyes in remorse for his crimes (incest and murder); the repentant blind man receives his sight from Christ. On second thoughts, "opposes" is far too dramatic a word for what happens in Vlepondas. The two stories are set side by side in that immensely slow- moving melismatic style so familiar now from Tavener's work.

Patience is needed and in part rewarded. Some of the word-setting is strikingly expressive - especially as sung by soprano Patricia Rozario and baritone Spyros Sakkas (despite the latter's apparent catarrh problems). And Tavener's imitations of traditional Greek and Indian vocal inflections are so much more effective when one has singers who can deliver them naturally and with conviction. The use of minimal forces (two voices and a solo cello) seems to focus and concentrate the intensity. Cellist Raphael Wallfisch made much of his solo passages, one agonised recitative more than faintly recalling late Shostakovich. But along with this go what, to impure English ears, can too easily be heard as absurdities. The narrative of Oedipus gouging out his eyes is followed by the two voices intoning what sounded dreadfully like "oo-er, oo-er". As for the slow, repetitive movement, which in some pieces can be extended over hours - well, I might find this easier to appreciate if it weren't for the moralising stance that accompanies it. If you find yourself yearning for something more active, more dramatic, that - says Tavener - is because your ears have been corrupted by the culture you grew up in. If you come away from Vlepondas with an urgent desire to listen to a Beethoven allegro, that isn't just a lapse of taste; it's something closer to a sin. Alas, I've a feeling I'm unredeemable.

Stephen Johnson

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