Historic ‘Axion Esti’ continues to teach generations

Record companies are never too keen on bringing out lofty album releases based on poetry. Albums featuring simpler lyrics are more accessible to the wider public, stand a greater chance of commercial success, and cost less to make, the labels contend. The recent rerelease of «Axion Esti,» one of master composer Mikis Theodorakis’s many landmark works, by the EMI label, 14 years after it was first brought out, comes as a musical highlight. A musical adaptation of Nobel Prize-winning poet Odysseas Elytis’s «Axion Esti,» which dates back to 1959, Theodorakis’s composition was first released in 1964. This latest edition of the epic poem’s musical interpretation, one of Theodorakis’s most commonly played works both in Greece and abroad, is one of several. The prominent work combines Byzantine tradition, old-school popular Greek music, and classical influences from the west, all to the poetry of Elytis. In contrast to the minimal number of existing recordings, numerous «Axion Esti» concert performances, featuring various vocalists, have accumulated over the years. Grigoris Bithikotsis sung on 1964’s original album. Its next version, in 1988, is credited to Giorgos Dalaras. The latest is based on a live recording made at the Herod Atticus Theater in May 2001, with Yiannis Kotsiras, one of the country’s most popular singers at present, as well as Andreas Kouloumbis and Yiannis Fertis. At 32, Kotsiras is the youngest singer to record «Axion Esti.» During the album’s live recording, Kotsiras also had the good fortune of rendering one of Theodorakis’s other prominent works, «Pnevmatiko Emvatirio,» a composition based on the poetry of Angelos Sikelianos, which has also been included in the new album. «Pnevmatiko Emvatirio» had been released once before, in a live performance at London’s Royal Albert Hall in 1970, with Maria Farandouri and Antonis Kaloyiannis. Kotsiras, in a previous interview, recalled his first listening experience of «Axion Esti» as a youngster at home. He was impressed, Kotsiras said, by the work’s ability to embody the era’s Greek reality. «The struggles of Greeks, and the country’s sociopolitical environment were conveyed by music and words,» Kotsiras remarked. Kotsiras and Theodorakis were drawn into collaboration in 1999 while the singer was working with the Mikis Theodorakis Popular Greek Music Orchestra. Theodorakis promptly recruited Kotsiras for another recording and release of «Axion Esti.» «At one of our performances on Samos, I sung ‘Tragoudi Tis Xenitias’ (Song of Foreign Lands). Right after it, he jumped onto the stage enthusiastically, and left me feeling stunned by proposing, in front of everybody, that I do ‘Axion Esti,’» Kotsiras remembered. «When I got home, I immediately began looking for information related to the work’s period. I wanted to understand, through the stories of people, what it all meant to the composer and Greeks of that era,» he added.

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