Thursday, 25 January 2018

Ancient Greece: Musical Inspirations

I through-listened to this CD, although I did take a few breaks for a mince pie and a cup of tea. I consider that it is a ‘concept’ album, so popular with progressive rock enthusiasts in the 1970s. By this, I mean an album where the sum is greater than the several parts.

The opening track, Seikilos Epitaph is, according to the liner notes, the ‘world’s oldest surviving complete musical composition.’ The Greek text (lyrics) and the musical notation are engraved on a marble tombstone discovered in 1883 in the ancient city of Tralles, which is near to the modern Turkish city of Aydin. Apparently, the hymn is dedicated to Seikilos’ wife or son:
As long as you live, shine,
Let nothing grieve you beyond measure
For your life is short,
And time will claim its toll.

Fortunately, Rody Van Gemert includes a short essay on the ‘ancient’ tuning systems. This is not necessary to an appreciation of the music, but does add a technical understanding to the recital.
This Epitaph is reprised in the final track in a different tuning.

The First Delphic Hymn to Apollo was composed around 128 BCE. The liner notes explain that the ‘score’ was ‘found inscribed on slab of marble in May 1893, located in the ruins of the Treasury of the Athenians at Delphi’. It is the earliest surviving musical composition that can be attributed to a composer by name, Athenios, son of Athenios. It has been arranged for guitar by Graham Lynch, who explains that ‘the re-working…was an imaginative attempt to connect with this melody and re-create it for modern ears. Although I arranged the piece, the final recording owes much to Rody’s [the guitarist] inventive use of timbre.’
I am not sure that it does much for me. Perhaps something has been lost in the past 2056 odd years.

As noted in the above track-listing, several of these works are composed or arranged by Graham Lynch. It is not necessary to provide biographical details as these are given on his excellent webpage as well as a two-page bio in the present CD’s liner notes. I have noted elsewhere that the key thing to bear in mind when listening to Lynch’s music is that he has developed an eclectic style which ranges from literarily, Ancient Music as presented on this CD to contemporary ‘art’ music as well as pop-infused compositions, jazz and a love for the ‘tango.’

Graham Lynch has defined his Greek pieces as follows: ‘I am not trying to relate to a historical Greece, but to the vivid ancient Greece of my imagination. And what stands behind all this music is not just that we understand the past as facts and events, but that by necessity we recreate it in a way that breathes meaning and life into our present day.’

Sing, Memory is an impressive work by any standards. It is timeless in the sense that Messiaen can be timeless – in other words the listener is not aware of the ticking of the clock.  The music imagines that Daphne, after ‘her transformation into a tree, reviews episodes from her life with cool detachment, regret, and outbursts of passion.’ It is composed for guitar and harpsichord.

Lynch’s Daphne Prelude, written for solo guitar. This was a precursor of Sing, Memory. It is short, meditative and quite simply beautiful. 

More dynamic, is the Apollo Toccate which is an impressive work lasting more than 17 minutes. It is conceived in nine sections, which can be performed in any order. The musical influences here are Venetian lute music and Baroque Toccatas. The listener is aware of the work’s continuity as well as an almost infinite variety. I understand that the Toccate is a fiendishly difficult work for the soloist to perform. It may well explain why it has not gained a place in the guitarists’ repertoire. Listening to this magical work, that seems infused with the myth of Apollo, reflecting both the sparkle of the sun and the god’s relation to the Muses, poetry and music.  I feel that it is one of the most impressive pieces I have encountered for solo guitar. It is a masterpiece.

The final contribution by Graham Lynch are the Three Aegean Pieces.  The first, ‘Cythera’, was inspired by Poulenc’s ‘L'Embarquement pour Cythère’ (after the painting by Watteau). This is not ‘cod’ Poulenc, but certainly there is no doubt as the source of inspiration.  The second piece, ‘Geranos’, is based on an ancient Greek dance. Unsurprisingly, Lynch has used the rhythms of his favourite dance form – the tango. The final number, ‘The Song of Seikilos’ nods to Ravel. Some of that composer’s early piano pieces were written ‘in the manner of’ other composers, such as Borodin and Faure. As far as I can tell, Lynch has used an ancient Greek melody and has harmonised it in several different ways. Lynch suggests that this creates as ‘music that steps outside of time.

I know virtually nothing about the American ‘hobo’ musician Harry Partch (1901-74) save that he was an ‘experimental’ composer who made use of microtonal scales and tunings. Microtonal meaning the ‘notes’ in the gaps between the semitones and tones of the ‘well-tempered’ scale. He also devised several ‘new’ instruments. The present work, Two Studies on Ancient Greek Scales has been arranged by Rody Van Gemert. The liner notes explain that Partch did not attempt to reconstruct ancient Greek music, but used the scales as a springboard for his imagination. The work was originally scored for bass marimba and a harmonic canon, which is an instrument in the zither family. The two pieces make use of the Olympos Pentatonic and the Archytas Enharmonic scales. Listeners need not puzzle over the theoretical underpinning of this music. It is quite simply impressive.

Maurice Ravel provided the piano accompaniments for the delightful Five Greek Folk-songs between 1904 and 1906. They were originally performed in the Greek language, but were later translated into French by Ravel’s friend Michel Calvocoressi. It was the composer’s first foray into the art of arranging folk tunes and were originally conceived for a music lecture. They were collected by Calvocoressi on the island of Chios. The texts of the songs deal with love and courtship. The present arrangement for harpsichord and guitar was made by Graham Lynch.  They make attractive numbers, but I must admit to preferring Ravel’s original, sung by Nora Gubisch or Gerard Souzay with piano accompaniment.

Canadian-Finnish composer Matthew Whittall has provided the score for the large-scale essay for harpsichord and guitar, The Wine-Dark Sea. The composer explains that the mythology of Greece and the Orient were important formative factors in his upbringing, giving him a sense of belonging. The present work reveals ‘the iconic, archetypal ‘Mother Sea’ and its numberless shades of blue, the quality of the sunlight, the smell of flowers and herbs in the air. These are the impressions informing The Wine-Dark Sea, a dreamlike postcard written after the fact, through a haze of memory.’
It is a remarkable work for a ‘northerner’ that captures the play of light, the mystery and the magic of that celebrated sea-scape.  Along with Graham Lynch’s Apollo Toccate, this is (for me) the most impressive works on this highly imaginative CD.

It almost seems redundant to insist that the performance on this exceptional CD is perfect, impressive, stunning, expressive, balanced and beautiful. The sound quality is ideal. The liner notes provide all the information needed to appreciate the imaginative music on the CD.
The entire package makes a perfect ‘Concept Album’ that reveals ‘the heart of the music on this disc…’ as a hugely successful ‘attempt to understand music as a living continuum.’

Track Listing:
Ancient Greece: Musical Inspirations
Seikilos Epitaph (tuning: Ptolemy’s even diatonic)]
Graham LYNCH (b.1957) Sing, Memory
Harry PARTCH (1901-74) Two Studies on Ancient Greek Scales (arr. R. V. Gemert): Olympos’ Pentatonic, Archytas’ Enharmonic
Graham LYNCH: Three Aegean Pieces: Cythera (à la manière de Poulenc), Geranos, Song of Seikilos (à la manière de Ravel)
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937) Five Greek Songs (arr. G. Lynch): Song for the bride, Yonder, at the church, What gallant can compare with me, Song of the girls gathering pistachios, Very merrily!
ATHENIOS SON OF ATHENIOS: First Delphic Hymn to Apollo (arr. G. Lynch)
Graham LYNCH: Apollo, Toccate
Matthew WHITTALL (b.1975) The Wine-dark sea IV 
Graham LYNCH: Daphne Prelude
Seikilos Epitaph (tuning: Archytas’ diatonic)
Rody Van Gemert (guitar), Assi Karttunen (harpsichord)
Rec. Östersundom church, Helsinki 20–22 April 2015,

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