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Nikos Skalkottas

Piano Concerto No.3 for ten winds & percussion (1939)
The Gnomes, ballet music (1939)

Geoffrey Douglas Madge, piano
Caput Ensemble/ Nikos Christodoulou
BIS-CD-1364 [TT: 81 mins]

BIS has done a tremendous service to several chosen contemporary composers and we are indebted to them for some marvellous recent releases of music by Nikos Skalkottas, difficult to perform and interpret, long after he died in 1949, having heard little of it performed.

It has been a long wait for his huge 1939 Third Piano Concerto since its London premiere under the auspices of the English Bach Festival made possible by the generosity of Lina Lalandi and her husband, who championed little known Greek composers like Christou and Skalkottas. I attended that first performance in 1969, when the concerto had been deemed so hard that three pianists were pressed into service, one for each movement!

That is not the main problem now; I guess there are quite a few 'transcendental' contemporary pianists who could make a good shot at sight-reading the piano part and devouring the score before breakfast.

The BIS project has been entrusted chiefly to musicologist/conductor Nikos Christodoulou, who recorded the first piano concerto with Geoffrey Douglas Madge in Iceland and provides the extensive scholarly analyses of the music and the editions used. Doubts have been raised about his interpretations of the 36 Greek Dances and of this concerto, but we can certainly accept it as a thought-out presentation, given from Christodoulou's newly prepared edition of this complex and challenging music.

There is a problem with the three dense and lengthy movements of the concerto. They are so eventful in detail, motives, harmony & piquant instrumentation (flute, oboe, cor anglais, clarinet, bassoon, contrabassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, and tuba + 3 percussionists, used tellingly but sparingly) that Skalkottas seems to have opted for a generally steady pace to hold things together. One critic, in ClassicsToday, fairly points out that the three movements sound not as contrasted in the event as the liner notes indicate they ought to be. The finale surely ought to be faster? (An opposite problem though with the 32 piano pieces, where I thought that slavish observance of near-impossible metronome indications was counter-productive.)

The Gnomes is a piquant, readily accessible little ballet suite, mostly arrangements of Stravinsky and Bartók piano miniatures, with a couple of pieces by Skalkottas himself; all tonal and scored with real verve and wit. The enthusiastic and confident young Icelandic ensemble seems to be playing accurately and they are well recorded in a non-resonant studio which is helpful in clarifying the textures.

This CD must be bought and is certainly a good introduction to the score, even if there is a certain doggedness in the piano playing and the conducting, and hopefully the existence of the recording may prompt renewed interest and further performances. New music needs live performance to bring it fully to life, and multiple recordings can help critical evaluation. One must hope that Skalkottas's music, and this knotty concerto in particular, will be taken up by the likes of conductors Boulez and Knussen, and pianists Aimard, Pace and Hodges, to name but a few, so that it may in due course, and belatedly, achieve its rightful place in the 20th century repertoire.

© Peter Grahame Woolf