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Nikos SKALKOTTAS (1904-1949)
Concerto No. 2 for piano and orchestra (1937) [37:23]
Tema con Variazioni (1949) [11:05]
Little Suite for Strings (1942) [8:22]
Four Images (1948) [12:45]
Geoffrey Douglas Madge (piano)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Nikos Christodoulou
rec. 20-22 April 2004, Studio 1, BBC Maida Vale Studios, London. DDD
Reviewed using a standard CD player
BIS SACD 1484 [70:41]

The BBC Symphony Orchestra have a long tradition of performing Skalkottas’s music. They have recorded it for broadcast since the 1960s and many of the tapes which formed the underground currency for the Skalkottas revival derived from their broadcasts. It is fitting, then, that many of the Bis series CDs have featured the BBC orchestra.

The music of Skalkottas can be forbidding and speaks in a fractured Schoenbergian argot. However it is always emotionally penetrating. So far as the technical aspects are concerned the conductor’s fulsome notes assure us that Skalkottas uses a group of tone rows.

The big piano concerto jangles with jazz shrapnel in the first movement (8:10). It exposes more lyrical sinew in the finale which is gripped by reflection yet ends with a desperate tragic gesture and a fading away. There is an engagingly rhapsodic continuity of ‘line’ to his writing and the seethingly active orchestration, especially in the first movement, holds the listener’s ear. The thinner, lunar light of the second movement is charged with ominous portent. Affinity works include Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments.

The Tema con Variazioni was completed in 1944 then put aside until 1949 when much of the orchestration was completed. It is his last work. The writing is dodecaphonic but varied; at times sounding like Britten and Weill (the symphonies). It is also easier to digest over the four short movements. Orchestra and conductor give it a lively following wind; try the memorable Allegro ritmato (tr. 7) which at times gropes towards a waltz in the surreal manner of Ravel’s La Valse. The Little Suite for Strings is written in a free atonal, non-serial idiom (Christodoulou) which is brisk and terse in the outer movements. If you enjoy Rawsthorne’s, Bartók’s and Schuman’s music for string orchestra this should appeal. Certainly it does not outstay its welcome. The work’s signature is one of shimmering dissonances and multi-parted string voices. Outside the Greek Dances, the andante is one of his most accessible and magically Berg-like pieces. In his last four years, almost without exception, Skalkottas composed in a much more tonal idiom though never without some dissonance to spice the textures and harmony. This is apparent in his Four Images. Though more subdued than either composer the parallels in this work are with Bartók and Kodály: the chaffing whirlwind abandon of village dances, the roar of the gipsy band and the disarming bucolic wheeze of the woodwind.

The sequence of these items plots a course from considerable dissonance through to a fresh embrace with tonality. Skalkottas addicts will need no second bidding. Bis and their artists deliver with flair and technical reliability. Theirs, as always, is the understatement that comes with confidence and artistic percipience.

Rob Barnett



Violin Concerto etc BIS-CD-904
Double Bass Concerto etc BIS-CD-954
Piano Concerto No. 1 etc BIS-CD-1014
Piano Concerto No. 3 etc BIS-CD-1364
Greek Dances BIS-CD-1333-34
Music for violin and piano BIS-CD-1024
String Quartets 3 and 4 BIS-CD-1074
String Quartets 1 etc BIS-CD-1124
Music for solo piano BIS-CD-1133/1134

Duo for violin and cello etc BIS-CD-1204

Trio etc BIS-CD-1244

Songs etc BIS-CD-1464

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