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Nikos SKALKOTTAS (1904-1949)
Thirty-Six Greek Dances (1933-49): Series I (1933-35) [26.45]; II (1936-49) [48.29]; III (1936-49) [35.07]
Alternative Versions of Dances II/8, II/9; III/6 (1949) [6.45]
The Return of Ulysses - Overture for Orchestra (c.1942) [28.23]
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Nikos Christodoulou
rec. BBC Studio 1, Maida Vale, London, 26-28 Nov 2001, 11-13 Apr 2002. DDD
BIS-CD-1333/1334 [2CDs: 75.48+71.32]

This is the fourth volume in Bis's steadfastly dedicated and continuing Skalkottas orchestral series. The cycle is listed in full at the end of this review.

Of the almost 148 minutes of this set two hours is given over to the highly approachable Greek Dances - all thirty nine of them (listed at the end of the review) - if you include the three alternative versions. The remaining 28 minutes are allocated to The Return of Ulysses which is Skalkottas in twelve tone mode - more Berg than Webern. This dichotomy is not completely pure; witness the Bergian rhapsodic violin solo of Chiotikos (II. 8) or the salty brassy dissonant snarls in Tsamikos (tr.15 CD2 and tr. 21 CD1) the latter rather like the squat obbligato grumblings in Nyman’s Prospero's Books. The dances should appeal to listeners who already appreciate Eshpai, Enescu, Janáček or Kodály with occasional infusions of Stravinsky and even Vaughan Williams and Copland.

The dances are for full orchestra with prominent doses of woodwind character. As often as not you will start off, as in Critikos (I; 2), with a Slavonic lilt and then along comes some cheeky Arnoldian woodwind or brass writing soused with coarse and whiskery life. Ipirotikos (I; 3) starts bumptiously rhythmic into which is imported a mid-eastern sway which then veers towards Rumania. The Kleftikos (set I) is a sombre awakening the writing in which is sharply reminiscent of Sibelius Symphony No. 4 until at 2.24 it flames into transient vitality with squeezed fleeting violin solos. The last dance, Thessalikos, is a brusque collision between Pulcinella and El Salon Mexico.

While the first set features dances that are by and large short the second has dances of which seven run three minutes or more. The first dance Syrtos (tr. 13 CD1) is truculent and stormy. Critikos (Cretan Dance) (tr. 15 CD1) is an adagio-paced idyllic musing with a majestic central section. Macedonikos (tr. 23 CD1) is the longest of all at 6.34 and steps it slowly - a dance in the early mists.

Set III has the happy and horn-rasping Hostianos (hinting at the optimism of Arthur Bliss) contrasted with the sighing musing of Ipirotikos and the Enescu-like wildnesses of Kleftikos. Innocence and a warm chuckle that is almost Provençal can be heard in the second Kleftikos in set III. Arcadikos is sentimental and flowing. The rumbustious Messolongitikos whirls along like one of the more uproarious Slavonic Dances.

These dances are a compendium of invention, East Mediterranean expression, folk manner and flamboyance. Their titles variously refer to areas of Greece, types of dance and specific folksongs. They are full of delightful surprises. Although they deserve much better these dances are well worth broadcasters keeping on hand as time fillers. Ballet companies should also have this set. It may yet provide a bank of ideas for some highly successful dance tableaux.

Across the three sets the same title is used for different dances; thus there is an Ipirotikos and a Kleftikos in each of I and III, a Critikos in set I and II. In fact there are two of Critikos within set I.

Many of the dances have been recorded before (five appear here in world premiere recordings) and so has the cuckoo in the nest here. The overture for orchestra The Return of Odysseus is in Skalkottas's head-on dissonant language, transparently orchestrated and full of awkward fascination. It is a phantasmal piece smoothly evolving through a series of episodes belligerent (8.23), hurtling and brilliant (7.04), fugal (15.03) and seraphic yet troubled (24.02). This is not its first recording. There was another on Koch International with a Danish Orchestra. The piece was premiered in 1969 by the LSO with Dorati conducting. Be warned it is quite a different work than any of the dances. At various times it has sported the completely spurious subtitle of Symphony in one movement.

The conductor also supplies the splendidly detailed and extensive notes.

While the gargantuan overture is likely to appeal most immediately to out and out enthusiasts of the Schoenberg tendency the dances have great potential for popularity. I recommend this set strongly.

Rob Barnett

Series I

1 Tsamikos - An Eagle
2 Critikos
3 Ipirotikos
4 Peloponnissiakos
5 Critikos - I enjoy no other dance
6 Kleftikos
7 Sifneikos
8 Kalamatianos
9 Dance of Zalongo
10 Macedonikos
11 Oh friends, who threw this apple
12 Thessalikos
Series II

1 Syrtos
2 Sifneikos - At Saint Marcella
3 Critikos - Early at dawn I rise
4 Nissiotikos - A woman from Mylopotamos
5 Vlachikos
6 Black Sash
7 Kathistos
8 Chiotikos
9 Tsamikos
10 Eptrapezios (Critikos)
11 Macedonikos
12 Peloponnisiakos
Series III

1 Hostianos
2 Ipirotikos
3 Kleftikos
4 Mariori
5 Down there at the village of Valtos
6 Macedonikos
7 Chiotikos - Down there at the seashore
8 Kleftikos
9 Kiss under a bitter-orange tree
10 Arcadikos
11 Messolongitikos
12 Mazochtos - I shall become a swallow.

II/8 Chiotikos
II/9 Tsamikos
III/6 Macedonikos

Violin Concerto, Largo Sinfonico, Greek Dances BIS-CD-904
Double Bass Concerto, Mayday Spell, Greek Dances BIS-CD-954
Piano Concerto No. 1, Maiden and Death; Ouverture Concertante BIS-CD-1014
Music for violin and piano BIS-CD-1024
String Quartets 3 and 4 BIS-CD-1074
String Quartet 1 etc BIS-CD-1124
Music for piano solo BIS-CD-1133-1134
Violin Sonata etc BIS-CD-1204

Note from John Deacon

Sorry to raise a query with your reviewer but I have spent some 30 years struggling to see a proper professional recording made of these dances. It all began when I was at EMI Greece (1970-77) and the head of the Greek Society of Contemporary Music (Mr. John Papaioannou) approached us to say that thanks to money from the Ford Foundation he had almost finished having all the unperformed/unpublished dances transcribed into orchestral parts and that he was planning to find a major company to record them complete for the first time. I recall that some 24 of them still remained totally unknown. At that time I knew only of 5-6 dances on an unknown US label by the Little Orchestra of San Francisco cond. Sherman (Thomas, I think and with one 'n' ?).

Following this contact I then had several meetings with Dorati and agreed with Peter Andry's dept. that EMI London would arrange for Abbey Road engineers to record these works with Dorati and the RPO during their visit to the Athens Festival (the following year).

Several things conspired against this, in particular when Mr. Papaioannou indicated to us that he would require a recording of the Violin Concerto to become part of the package (or the scores of the dances would not be made available). As a result EMI London declined to proceed with the project. In fact the scores were nowhere near ready and did not become so until many years later.

From that point on I was independent (running Conifer) and tried proposing this project right around the industry. Nobody was interested ! Not Decca, nor Chandos, nor Hyperion, and not even EMI. Naxos declined.

And then ....

and this is where I take issue with your writer who said that >> Many of the dances have been recorded before (five appear here in world premiere recordings) <<

.... a complete recording appeared on the Lyra label in Athens (2CD) by the Urals PO under Byron Fidetzis. However inspired the conductor might have been, the recording and orchestral playing are abysmal and, in any event, the set saw no international distribution whatever.

So there are 5 world premiere recordings here ? I believe that doesn't quite add up !?

Upon my return from EMI Dubai in 1997 I contacted the Ford Foundation and they told me that the scores had been finished and the Urals PO recording issued on Lyra. By then it had been out for over a year yet nobody knew about it !

Anyway after all these struggles it is great news that Robert von Bahr has secured the scores for I am certain that if Mr. Papaioannou is still alive he must be thrilled at the prospect of seeing the complete oeuvre of his hero appearing on a major label at last. The sales possibilities for this recording in Greece remain truly massive (to this day) if marketed properly for it is the only "non-pop/bouzouki" tourist souvenir for a visitor to take home !

Sad that the Ford Foundation spent so much money and then had to wait nearly 30 years for the BIS recording to come along !! Enfin, bravo ! I am impatient to hear it. I'm sure this was worth the wait.

In conclusion, a rather moving footnote: Dorati, of course, appeared at the Athens Festival (that year) with the Philharmonia Hungarica. He began the encore. I knew instinctively, from the rhythm in the opening bars, that I was hearing a Skalkottas dance. So did the rest of the audience for all 6000 of them rose immediately, and silently, to their feet. They were greatly moved by Dorati's gesture. At the end there was bedlam. I have never experienced anything like it.

John G. Deacon, former director of EMI Greece and founder of Conifer Records

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