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Nikos SKALKOTTAS (1904-1949)
Sixteen Melodies for mezzo-soprano and piano;
Fifteen Little Variations for piano (1927);
Sonatina for piano (1927);
Echo for piano (1946);
Berceuse for piano (1941)
Angelica Cathariou (mezzo-soprano)
Nikolaos Samaltanos (piano)
Recorded at the church Saint-Marcel, Paris, March/April 2004
BIS CD 1464 [59.43]

This is, of course, the centenary of the birth of Greece’s greatest composer, Nikos Skalkottas. This release is the third this year and the twelfth in this amazingly enterprising series from Bis. Sponsorship for the disc is from AIFS and the Hellenic Foundation. It has also been musicians like pianist Nikolaos Samaltanos who have not only learnt this extraordinary difficult music but who have also promoted it in concerts throughout Europe. Also worthy of recognition is Nikos Christodoulou the conductor on many of the Bis series discs of so many of the orchestral works. They and others have been responsible for editing and recopying the music, some of which has not been heard before.

These CD notes by Christophe Sirodeau are unusual in this series in that they do not take half an hour to read beforehand and their emaphasis is less analytical. Even so they remain very helpful. At the head of the first paragraph concerning the Sixteen Melodies is "This is the long-awaited first complete recording of Skalkottas’ cycle of songs … a work that has remained shrouded in mystery and which is rarely heard." The texts often emphasise lines like ‘northern wind’, ‘alone’ and ‘silence’. Whilst listening and reading the texts it occurred to me that this work is actually Skalkottas’ Winterreise.

The texts are given in Greek, which defeats me I’m afraid, but Bis has commissioned beautiful translations into English by Angie Athanassiades who is herself a poet of note. It is this sort of gratifying attention to detail which has marked out this wonderful series.

But what about the music?

Well, the songs are a puzzle in many ways. I can almost see why Skalkottas wrote little in this area. The melodies in themselves are reasonably straightforward and singable. The piano parts, however, are often incredibly busy. There are so many notes and no simple textures which might have sometimes matched the words to their emotions. The piano may well have virtuoso solo passages but the singer never sings alone. These are piano pieces with voice and text. That’s how it comes across to me.

Let’s take an example, a rather beautiful one. Song six is translated as ‘Revelation/Apocalypse’ and begins, "There you stood, in the chapel among the icons/like the Virgin, as though the sermon / was staged just for you as though/ the psalms were being sung to awaken you". There is no attempt at word painting as such but instead a generally oppressive atmosphere. Following a wispy and bi-tonal piano introduction the voice enters with a wide-ranging melody which could almost be folk-inspired. It is accompanied by totally chromatic piano writing, which is almost consistently polyphonic. It creates an uncertain atmosphere and a continuous run of notes. This polyphony continues until a few ethereal chords briefly interject then the piano is left alone. The voice enters for the second half of the poem but there is no noticeable repetition of turns of phrase. The piano part simply metamorphoses and develops with a brief repeat of the isolated bitonal chordal interjections. The voice drops away leaving the piano with a solemn postlude which is as tonally ambiguous as the rest. Perhaps Skalkottas is emphasizing the phrase "a myriad deaths, become one voice". However it can be difficult, less so in this song, to see how the voice and piano really relate to each other.

The piano pieces are not entirely ‘stocking fillers’ although ‘Echo’ lasts only two minutes and a half; Berceuse is a minute shorter. For me the ‘Fifteen Little Variations’ is an extraordinary work. It dates from 1927 when Skalkottas was branching out into such experimental harmony that the effect is atonal. The theme is just eight bars and is marked Allegretto Scherzando; it is soon gone. The variations are at first only eight bars long expanding to 9 (Var. 5) 12 (Var. 6) 17 (Var. 7 "a ghostly waltz" to quote the booklet notes) with the last variation marked ‘Langsam’ being forty-four bars long. The intriguing thing is that, on studying the score, the theme consists of just two chords repeated a tone lower followed by a lead bar into the next variation. From such unassuming means the piece progresses yet lasts only five, tightly compacted minutes.

The ‘Sonatina’ seems to come from the same stable as the Suite No. 1 for piano (recorded on a double album of Skalkottas’ piano music also played by Nikolaos Samaltanos, Bis CD 1133/1134). It is not much longer than the Variations and falls into three neat movements but certainly does not feel like a set of miniatures. Like much of Skalkottas it has much to say between the notes.

I can’t say that I particularly like the acoustic of Saint-Marcel in Paris used also for the double album mentioned above. The sound can be rather brittle and the opening of the ‘Variations’ is so harsh that it seems to be just a gruff noise. The songs work better in that acoustic but I am not a great fan of Angelica Cathariou’s tone which I feel is too operatic. Nevertheless she is suitably versatile and accurate and when needed, dramatic. These are immensely difficult pieces and her achievements and musicianship should not be underestimated.

If this were my first excursion into Skalkottas then I wouldn’t start here but with an orchestral disc. However if you are a Skalkottas fan then despite my reservations you should get this disc as a rare example of the composer’s vocal work in first rate performances

Gary Higginson

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