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Nikos Skalkottas
Concerto for Two Violins and Piano
Music for Wind Instruments and Piano

Quartet for Oboe, Trumpet, Bassoon and Piano
Concertino for Oboe and Piano
Concertino for Trumpet and Piano
Tango and Fox-trot for Oboe, Trumpet, Bassoon and Piano
Sonata Concertante for Bassoon and Piano

Alexeï Ogrintchouk, oboe
Eric Aubier, trumpet
Marc Trenel, bassoon
Eiichi Chijiiwa, violin
Nina Zymbalist, violin
Christophe Sirodeau, piano
Nikolaos Samaltanos, piano

BIS-CD-1244 [TT: 80 mins]

Sixteen Melodies for mezzo-soprano and piano
Fifteen Little Variations for piano (1927)
Sonatina for piano (1927)
Echo for piano (1946)
Berceuse for piano (1941)

Angelica Cathariou, mezzo soprano
Nikolaos Samaltanos, piano

BIS CD 1464 [TT: 60 mins]

Getting to know Nikos Skalkottas's music has been a long and rewarding pilgrimage. In UK we remain indebted to Lina Lalandi for presenting his music, year after year, in her ground breaking English Bach Festivals, which featured (alongside the eponymous composer) composers and musicians from her native Greece. A high-spot, and it illustrates the difficulty this music presented all those decades ago, was the premiere of the 3rd piano concerto, which required one pianist for each of its movements, so hard were they to master!

There was an early LP box from Greece of chamber music, not all the performances of highest professional standard, but good enough to keep up the interest. Skalkottas was celebrated as a significant composer in Harry Halbreich's very personal musical Salon des Refusés, a festival in Portugal which focused upon the resurrection of some undeservedly neglected composers of the recent past.

The real breakthrough is owed to BIS, which (in characteristic manner) embarked upon a huge recording programme, and has now released some dozen CDs of Skalkottas's music in many genres. The Concerto for Two Violins "will leave listeners in a contagion of good mood", says Christopher Sirodeau. That sums up my feeling too, and about this whole CD, 80 minutes of close packed music by a composer who tends towards the succinct.

A great deal of music, often fast and breathless, may be concentrated into a few minutes, as with several of the works given here.The unique concerto for two violins and piano duet (one piano) makes this an imperative must-buy release. Skalkottas died from a ruptured appendix in 1949, unknown, unpublished, unrecorded and unplayed, before he had orchestrated this double concerto.

Sirodeau explains why that major work has remained as 'monochrome photo' but is all the better for that; the richly coloured violin parts and ideas bubbling out with such prolixity make thought of any limitations soon to be forgotten. He further opined that Skalkottas' orchestration was evolving in his later years so that it would be very risky to guess what the composer himself might have done. I would endorse this and go further; balance problems vanish in the chamber version and the piano score is so exciting in its own right that younger professional duettists should be badgering the best violinists around to join them to perform the concerto everywhere - UK's Kesh Piano Duo to consider the possibility, maybe?

It is enormously invigorating and heart-lifting music, by a composer who brought Mediterranean warmth into rigorous and complex serial procedures of his own.

The chamber music with wind makes a delightful sequence of varied music, showing that Skalkottas had a rare flair for displaying instruments at their best. Eric Aubier's trumpet is tamed for a domestic environment; Alexeï Ogrintchouk's oboe is suave and mellow, and bassoonist Marc Trenel has a substantial 22 mins work that confirms how few chamber works for their instruments can compete with those of Skalkottas.

The other CD is more for Skalkottas afficionados. The group of piano pieces, mostly early ones, include the delicious and marvellously concise Little Variations, which I thought I'd mastered at the keyboard until I heard how swiftly Nikolaos Samaltanos despatches the faster ones. There are also two short pieces which show that Skalkottas (like Schönberg) was perfectly capable of writing listener-friendly tonal music for Greek audiences who hadn't caught up with modernism.

The 16 songs will never become popular because of the daunting piano parts. They form an important facet of Skalkottas's oeuvre and are put across convincingly by Angelica Cathariou and the ever-astonishing Nikolaos Samaltanos. Presentation is fine, with Greek originals and parallel English translations.

See also my reviews of SKALKOTTAS' 32 Piano pieces and his 3rd Piano Concerto


Skalkottas - Double Concertos

Concerto for Two Violins and Orchestra (orchestrated Demertzis);
Concertino for Two Pianos and Orchestra;
Characteristic Piece ‘Nocturnal Amusement’ for xylophone and orchestra

Georgio Demertzis & Simos Papanas, violins; Maria Asteriadou & Nikolaos Samaltanos, pianos; Dimitris Desyllas, xylophone
Thessaloniki State Symphony Orchestra/Vassilis Christopoulos

BIS-CD-1554 [TT: 55']

Nikos Skalkottas (1904-49) died tragically young and the main work here was left in short score (reviewed above). It is finally presented here (2008) in orchestration by a Skalkottas specialist, Kostis Demertzis, who contributes the notes. That was undertaken in the context of the warning against trying to do so by the pianist and commentator Christopher Sirodeau quoted above; no doubt the two Skalkottas specialists have by now had an opportunity to debate the issue...

Skalkottas was a modest, retiring orchestral violinist, but his deep knowledge of the instrument is shown here in this substantial double concerto, over half an hour long, which has some aspects to remind you of Bach as well as his serial studies. The middle movement, slow variations combining serial technique with drawing upon a rebenko tune "Down there in the country of the Arabs" is one of the most beautiful in the composer's entire oeuvre. This concerto is a unique work, wholly characteristic of its composer, and should be played in concert and on radio in both versions. Without wanting to appear patronising, I did wonder whether the Thessaloniki orchestra had shown Demertzis' orchestral score to best possible advantage? On replaying the other, we found its clarity and joie de vivre irresistible.

It would be a great gesture for BIS to consider making the two discs available as a reduced price twofer?

Skalkottas became known belatedly in England through Lina Lalandi's championship of composers of her homeland in her English Bach Festival, in London during the early years of Queen Elizabeth Hall; the unusual shared premiere of his 3rd piano concerto recalled above.

Quite soon he became one of my favourite composers, his music instantly recognisable. I have reviewed him in concert and recording often and have acquired most of the exemplary BIS CDs.

Peter Grahame Woolf

Note: Google "Skalkottas + Woolf" to see more from PGW's extensive coverage of the BIS Skalkottas series, e.g. on Music Web the String Quartets, and Violin works.



© Peter Grahame Woolf