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Nikos SKALKOTTAS (1904-1949)
Concerto No. 3 for Piano and Ten Wind Instruments (1939) [65’50]
The Gnomes (1939) [14’13]
Geoffrey Douglas Madge (piano)
Caput Ensemble/Nikos Christodoulou
Recorded at Salurinn, Iceland, 6 Nov. 2002 (Concerto) and Reykjavik City Theatre, Iceland, 12 Nov. 2002 (Gnomes)
BIS CD 1364 [80’53]

 

BIS are certainly to be congratulated for letting us get to know the music of Skalkottas through this valuable series of recordings. Most, including the two works here, are world premieres on disc, and this particular issue is filled to capacity at nearly 81 minutes. Of course, quantity does not always equal quality, and though much of the Piano Concerto is well crafted and worth getting to know, I can’t help feeling that the composer may have tightened or revised aspects of the piece had he been fortunate enough to hear it performed.

It is said that it was one of his personal favourites, and though I can’t say what the others are like, this Third Concerto has structural problems, at least to my ears. It is basically a chamber work, along the lines of Stravinsky’s Piano Concerto or the Kammermusik No.4 for Piano by Hindemith. The problem, as can be seen from the above timing, is that the work is about twice (or nearly three times) the length of those models, and the material and scoring are virtually crushed under that weight. The first movement has clear echoes of Hindemith, with contrapuntal interplay between soloist and ensemble that is very neo-classical, yet it lasts over 20 minutes. There are ear-tickling textures, and some of the melodies lodge themselves in the mind, but it ultimately sounds like ‘composer’s music’, technically brilliant but a little soulless and note-spinning. Rather like his teacher Schoenberg, it is also a bit straight-faced and humourless, though there is never any doubting the skill with which it is worked out. Music like this needs a very strong personality in performance, and it’s good to report that these musicians (especially the pianist) do their best to make the notes and phrasing sparkle with as much character as possible.

The long (26-minute) slow movement could almost be a substantial composition in its own right. The long-breathed opening melody is certainly memorable, but again one gets the sense of a composer too much in love with the material to be ruthless about the formal indulgences. The finale is tighter, and also gives a better balance to the mix of piano and wind, emerging with a Prokofiev-like wit and irony. It is a real pity the composer wasn’t able to rethink the concerto, as its length and complexity are unlikely to gain it a foothold in the repertory.

The filler, a suite from the ballet The Gnomes, could not provide a bigger, or more welcome, contrast. Here one immediately recognises the Skalkottas of the Thirty-Six Greek Dances, and no less than 14 miniatures are packed into its 14-minute span, roughly a minute per piece (though one is as short as 24 seconds!). You may do a double-take, as I did, in recognition of some of the material, and sure enough, the excellent liner-note points out that only three of the items are original Skalkottas. The rest are orchestrations of short piano pieces by Bartόk and Stravinsky, a fitting tribute to two of his major influences. The whole work is a delight and vividly shows us the composer’s skill and lifelong interest in dance related forms – now this surely could get a place in the concert hall.

Having mentioned the liner-notes, it is worth adding that they are by the conductor himself, Nikos Christodoulou, and are a model of scholarly insight, though they may be a bit dense and technical for some. The recording is, as usual, superb.

Tony Haywood



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