Skalkottas’s first mature string quartet was composed
in 1928 during the period of his studies with Schönberg (1927-1928)
in Berlin and, as far as is known, was performed in Berlin and Athens
in 1930. This is a concise work in three short, contrasted movements
characterized by Skalkottas’s own atonal-serial idiom and idiomatic
string writing. (He was a violinist who played in various orchestras
and string quartets, including his own Athens Quartet which he founded
in 1949.) The First String Quartet is a remarkably crafted piece of
music brimming with invention and assured writing, in which Skalkottas’s
contrapuntal mastery is evident from first to last.
Though clearly from the same pen, the Octet
of 1934 is in a somewhat lighter, more entertaining vein. It is a fine
work, superbly put together, full of technical assurance and yet another
example of the composer’s formal mastery.
So is the much more serious and ambitious String
Trio No.2 completed the following year. Both pieces have much
in common through the string trio is a more austere, demanding piece,
but obviously a great achievement.
The Zehn Stücke für Streichquartett
(Skizzen) composed in about 1940 may be better known in the
version for string orchestra made by the composer with the title Ten
Sketches (available on AGORA 129). This suite of ten short pieces
evokes several musical moods in much the same way as Prokofiev’s Visions
fugitives (for piano but arranged for strings by Rudolf Barshaï),
Webern’s Bagatellen or Fernando Lopes-Graça’s Fourteen
Annotations. All movements, but the three slow ones, are very
short indeed and sometimes play for less than one minute. Nevertheless
the whole set is a fine achievement in its own right and really deserves
its comparative popularity.
Geros Dimos (1949) is actually an arrangement
of a folk-like song by Paul Karrer (1829 – 1896) that Skalkottas made
for his newly founded Athens Quartet. Though the basic material obviously
bears the imprint of late National Romanticism, Skalkottas handles the
tune in much the same way as he did in his Greek Dances.
A short enjoyable encore that is well worth hearing though the Greek
Dances based on authentic folk material are much more attractive.
The New Hellenic Quartet, who have already recorded
Skalkottas’s Third and Fourth String Quartets (BIS CD-1074, a real winner),
play with conviction, technical assurance and full understanding of
Skalkottas’s music. So do their colleagues in the Octet.
A most welcome and recommended release which pays a long-delayed and
well-deserved tribute to this great composer.