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Nikos SKALKOTTAS (1904-1949)
Ballet Music for Piano

The Land and the Sea of Greece (1948) [21.18]
Island Images (1943) [13.09]
The Maiden and Death (1938) [19.21]
Procession to Achelon (1948?) [4.09]
Echo (1942-42) [3.04]
Lorenda Ramou (piano)
rec. October 2005, Vasteras Concert Hall, Sweden. DDD
BIS CD 1564 [62.58]


There is a little pull-out brochure that goes into the booklet of this CD which indicates that this is the sixteenth disc in the remarkable and on-going Skalkottas cycle from Bis. The series has been sponsored by the Hellenic Ministry of Culture. There was a time when one Skalkottas disc alone was cause for celebration but now we are deep into his style and have gained a fantastic all-round picture of his short composing career. The series started well before the centenary and it’s good to see that it is continuing. In fact we are even more blest because some of the pieces in these versions for solo piano have been heard on previous discs in their vivid orchestral colours. Skalkottas was a terrific orchestrator, not surprisingly for a man who earned his living in an orchestral pit in Athens.

I should say at the outset that Skalkottas was a musical schizophrenic. There are works like the phenomenal Third Piano Concerto - an atonal work lasting well over an hour (Bis 1364). Then again there are the 36 Greek Dances for orchestra (Bis 1333/1334) and other works inspired by Greek culture and Greek music. The pieces on this present CD mostly fall into the latter category although ‘The Maiden and Death’ at times lurch on the boundary between the two.

It might be useful, especially if you have been collecting them, to know where these piano versions may be found on earlier orchestral discs in the series. Let’s start with ‘The Land and the Sea of Greece’. This, like most of the pieces on the recording, is a late work and appears here as a six movement suite. For this ballet Skalkottas collaborated with Polyxemi Mathay, pictured within the booklet alongside the composer. The opening salvo entitled ‘The Harvest’ in a rather earnest waltz time sets a happy mood. This is followed by another waltz ‘The Sowing’ couched in gentle modality. This offers the antithesis of the first piece but both help to make a charming start to the CD. The orchestrated version, now called ‘Four Images’, dates from 1949 and is on Bis CD 1384 conducted by Byron Fidetzis. Oddly enough you can also find it on Bis SACD 1484 played by the BBCSO conducted by Nikos Christadoulou. The two unused movements, ‘The Trawl’ (or ‘Trawler’) and ‘The Dance of the Waves’ were incorporated in another suite entitled ‘The Sea’ - an eleven movement work available on the same disc. Curiously enough the orchestration is so colourful that the piano version, especially under the formidable hands of Lorenda Ramou, can often seem to have more visceral power.

The second ballet for piano is ‘Island Images’. This is a six movement work written during the dark days of World War Two especially for a student, Aleka Mazaraki-Katseli and her diploma ballet exam. This was apparently orchestrated but at present the whereabouts of the score are not known. Its titles are again nationalistic with a heavy-footed ‘Greek Dance’ and, following it, ‘Sunday in Church - Feast’, ‘The Trawler’ (again) and ‘Sea Waves’. All depict various scenes from the life of the coastal dwellers.

‘The Maiden and Death’ is a harmonically more daring piece as heard right from the start in the opening chords. Even so it is largely diatonic and never tough at least not in the sense encountered in the string quartets. It consists of seven movements simply listed with Italian speed markings. The booklet offers us a useful resumé of the somewhat convoluted plot. The brilliantly orchestrated version can be heard on Bis CD 1014 played by the Iceland SO under Christadoulou. The excellent booklet notes by Yannis Samprovalakis describe it as "a ballet suite after a well-known Greek folk tune"; not well known to me I’m afraid.

‘Acheron’ is the valley of Death. This gloomy procession is most impressive as is the following ‘Echo’ a little piece also recorded by Nikolaos Samaltanos on Bis 1464. I am not quite sure how it came about that Bis decided on the luxury of recording certain pieces a second time but with this piece it’s quite interesting that Ramou finds much more mystery in it than Samaltanos and is over one minute longer in its execution. She is aided by a first class and immediate but realistic acoustic.

So time to draw breath and sum up. Most of these works can be heard in other formats and guises elsewhere in the series. Does that matter? To me, No. These piano versions are the composer’s first thoughts. They are generally the ones which were first aired in the initial excitement of the ballet projects he was involved with and which were apparently so well received. In his spare time, sometimes to a commission, and no doubt burning the midnight oil having been playing all evening, he would set about the marvellous orchestrations. One might perhaps call these works after-thoughts, so these piano originals are well worth hearing and worth adding to your collection. This is especially so in the hands of Lorenda Ramou who has both grace and power coupled with a clear rhythmic pulse.

I must comment on the booklet notes and their accompanying black and white photos. With this disc the essay is ideal. With some in the series there has been so much gobbledygook and technical detail that the print became so tiny one has almost literally needed a microscope to read it. They are now clear both in type face and in what they have to say and are also well translated for a change.

Gary Higginson


 



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