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Nikos SKALKOTTAS (1904-1949)
Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello (1936)
Largo (1940); Bolero (1948); Serenata (1949); Sonatina (1949); Tender Melody (1958) for cello and piano
Maria Kitsopoulos, cello; Maria Asteiadou, piano; Georgios Demertzis, violin
Rec. Megaron Concert Hall, Athens, Greece, September 2000. DDD
BIS-CD-1224 [68.15]


This is the tenth Skalkottas CD produced by Bis since 1997. Very often these have been performed by Greek musicians and recorded by Greek production teams. Half of these discs have been of his chamber music. Each has been recorded and performed to the highest possible standards. The music is incredibly clever, complex, life-enhancing, joyous, shocking and tough by turns.

I remember being in Greece twenty years ago and finding no LPs of Skalkottas’s music and hardly anyone who had heard of him. Then in the late 1980s the BBC broadcast a series of programmes offering a selection of his orchestral and chamber works. It is from that season that Bis gained the initiative for this continued series. I do urge all collectors and listeners to get hold of at least one of these Skalkottas discs and this is as good a place as any to start. These recordings are particularly well timed as later this year (2004) the centenary of Skalkottas’s birth will be marked. Who knows, in the U.K., we may even have some Skalkottas at the Proms.

Each CD has been marked by some of the most copiously annotated booklets in my entire collection. Now I don’t mind, but these can sometimes be rather technical. Although this one, by Kostis Demertzis, is one of the more friendly examples, the small font and detailed analysis might prove a little daunting for some. However the writers are ultimately trying to be helpful. It’s worth spending some time reading what Mr Demertzis has to say before hearing anything. The music will (I believe) tackle and hold your attention.

What is it about this composer which is so fascinating? For me the uniqueness of the music is to be found in Skalkottas’s marrying of Greek rhythms and serial technique; elements that often prove unusually complementary. No matter what technique he is using his voice is so personal that you need only a few bars to recognize him.

If you just want only the Greek inspired ‘ethnic’ music then you would be better going for the more diatonic sets of ‘Greek Dances’ (on Bis CD 1333/4) or the beautiful ‘Maiden and Death’ Ballet suite (Bis CD1014). If you hanker for something more adventurous, the serious dodecaphonic works on this disc might well suffice. I say serious but these are, at the same time, brilliantly crafted, original and highly concentrated compositions. They also display great rhythmic energy and excitement and quite often fun (as in the ‘Eight Variations’). Longing is also within Skalkottas’s vocabulary. Listen, for example, to the long, lyrical melody in the ‘Largo’ for cello and piano. What is so interesting also is that Skalkottas was capable of working at two contrasting works at the same time: say a ‘Greek Dance’ and a twelve-tone ‘Piano Trio’. You could argue that what he was trying to do was to make Schoenberg’s theory, listener-friendly. One speculates, sadly, what might he have achieved had he have lived a more normal life-span rather than only the tragic forty-five allotted to him.

Let’s just take two of these works as exemplars; first the ‘Tender Melody’. The title and the length, at two and a half minutes, would indicate a piece of quick composition and suggest ease of listening. However Skalkottas uses a compositional game which you might well not notice. As Alban Berg said, the technique is the composer’s business however, for listeners who are interested, the extensive notes go into some detail. You may well not realise, aurally, that this very beautiful piece uses a highly sophisticated form of serial technique. The cello part consists "of the constant repetition of the row". The succeeding phrases "begin on a different note of the row, the first on the first note F#, the second on the second note E, the third on the third note D" etc. Eventually the full row is heard again at the end, so that "the tender melody consists of twelve sections" … and to add to its interest. "the piano chords form various rows without any obvious connection to the cello’s row".

I recall, in the late 1960s, an LP of Skalkottas’s chamber works, which I borrowed from the library and recorded from it the astonishing ‘Eight Variations’. Does it use a real Greek folk tune? During its thirteen minutes and amid its chromatic wanderings and diatonic melody the Variations track through lyricism,(var.3), march-like spasms (var.2), scherzandi (var.4), dances, (var.7), impetuosity (var 8), crying and desperation (var 5). These are sometimes for piano alone, sometimes for violin and cello and then, for emphasis, all three. All of life seems encapsulated in this music.

The recording is clear, immediate and close but (and I especially like this) the performers’ breathing is not audible! The performances are magnificent, bringing out all aspects of this emotionally complex music to its fullest extent. Highly recommended

Gary Higginson


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