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Nikos SKALKOTTAS (1904-1949)
Concerto for two Violins with two pianos (1944-5)
Works for Wind Instruments and Piano (1939-1943)
Quartets 1 and 2 for Oboe, Trumpet, Bassoon and piano
Concertino for Oboe and piano
Concertino for trumpet and Piano
Sonata Concertante for Bassoon and Piano
Eiichi Chijiiwas and Ina Zymbalist, Violins; Alexei Ogrintchouk, oboe; Eric Aubier, trumpet; Marc Trenel, Bassoon; Nikolaos Samaltanos and Christophe Sirodeau, Pianos
Recorded at the Church of Evangelique Saint-Michel, Paris February-May 2002
BIS CD 1244 [79.26]

In 1982, if you will forgive the memory lane for a moment, I was in Greece. Wherever I went I tried to find LPs of music by the man I thought was Greece's greatest composer, Nikos Skalkottas. Most music shops and record proprietors either hadn't heard of him or knew nothing about him; I came home empty-handed.

About 1989, quite out of the blue, BBC Radio 3 under the guiding hand of producer John Thorney spent a small fortune on recording and broadcasting many of Skalkottas's major compositions. Some of these piece have been appearing on Bis's on-going series devoted to the composer's music. This seems to run, with this recording, to ten volumes with, it seems, much more to come.

In 1994 Philips (442 795-2) produced an almost fifty minute CD of the composer's 'Cycle-Concert' for wind, as recorded here with some stunning musicians like Heinz Holliger and Håkan Hardenberger. I don't suppose it sold many copies and was fairly quickly deleted but I shall refer to it a little.

I realize even more than I did in the 1980s that Skalkottas is no forgotten second-rater (a curious cross between Schoenberg - his teacher- and a Greek folk song collector) but a prolific genius whose music grows in stature the more you get to know it. I feel that I could write reams about him, but, you will be glad to hear, I will restrict myself to this new release.

The disc appears to be the brain-child of the Greek pianist Christophe Sirodeau who plays throughout and who wrote the extensive booklet notes. The series has been marked by some outstanding if arguably, overly detailed booklet notes.

It begins with the thirty-five minute 'Concerto for two Violins', which was never orchestrated, sadly, by Skalkottas, but is played in the version for two pianos and two violins. It is a scintillating three movement composition with a terrifically virtuosic ten minute rondo finale. I ended up breathless and full of admiration for the composer and especially the performers for whom this music cannot have been familiar. It doesn't take long to get into Skalkottas's language. Twelve tone yes but melodic and full of Greek dance rhythms as the first movement demonstrates. A unique blend.

The five pieces which make up the so-called 'Cycle-Concert' are for wind only. I have to say that I prefer the Philips order with the two very short 'Quartets for Piano and Winds' topping and tailing the cycle. Bis, for some reason, end with the largest piece in the group - the rather gloomy Bassoon Concertante. The melancholy nature of this piece is not in my view helped by Marc Trenel's somewhat withdrawn and muted tone. Klaus Thunemann on Philips is much more 'up-front'. However by taking more than eleven minutes over the middle movement as opposed to Trenel's eight, he drags the music along and totally loses momentum in what is after all marked Andantino.

I realize that the modern CD player can programme pieces in any order so my criticism is mostly irrelevant but to end with the twelve tone 'Tango and Fox-trot Quartet (No2) makes much more fun.

Generally speaking the tempi on the Bis recording are faster than on the Philips. I can only say that if they had not been the music would not have fitted onto one CD. Seventy-nine minutes and a bit is about as generous as a disc can be. These livelier tempi are generally right except with the 'Oboe Concertino' where for once Heinz Holliger is not relaxed enough and fails to enjoy the beauty of the line. On the new disc Alexei Ogrintochouk revels in the melody and draws from it more than I realized was there. Quite moving.

The 'Trumpet Concertino' goes at quite a lick in the hands of Aubier who knocks one minute off Hardenberger without any loss of detail.

The Bis recording is warmer and welcomes the listener into its ambience. The Philips is perfectly reasonable but fails to balance the winds against the piano quite as convincingly in the two quartets.

To listen to Skalkottas is a unique experience perhaps a little hairshirt at times but like a glass of Retsina there is nothing else quite as memorable or as addictive.

Gary Higginson

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