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Nikos SKALKOTTAS (1904-1949)
Piano Concerto No. 3, AK 18 (1939)
Daan Vandewalle (piano), Blattwerk / Johannes Kalitzke
rec. 2018, MIRY Concert Hall, Ghent, Belgium

Few of my increasingly encroaching collection of music books have been as excessively thumbed as an ante-diluvian Pelican paperback I acquired more than forty years ago. First published in 1957 and edited by Howard Hartog, ‘European Music in the Twentieth Century’ is a collection of essays by luminaries such as Norman Del Mar, David Drew, Walter and Alexander Goehr and others. There are overviews of the usual suspects; Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Bartok, Hindemith, Berg and Webern followed by summaries of the current ‘trends’ (as things stood all those years ago) in the major European nations. While many of these summaries introduced me to a plethora of once unfamiliar names, by far the most fascinating chapter was the final one, which was unexpectedly and presciently devoted to the work of Nikos Skalkottas. Compiled by the composer’s friend John G Papaioannou, it begins with these words: “ A unique case in the history of contemporary music is that of the Greek composer, Nikos Skalkottas, who died in 1949 completely unknown, leaving behind him an imposing oeuvre of which many even of his closest friends were unaware.” The fact that such an unknown figure merited a chapter to himself impressed me deeply. I recall that back in the late 1970s the only Skalkottas that was generally available was an old Argo LP which included the Octet, the Quartet No 3 and the sprightly Variations on a Greek Folk Tune. Anoraks like myself have many reasons to be grateful to Robert von Bahr and BIS Records, but for me their dedication to the cause of this Greek master is primus inter pares. Without their intervention, it seems likely Skalkottas’ name would have remained little more than a footnote.

In my na´ve and unfettered teenage imagination the idea of a Greek composer who studied with Schoenberg offered a fascinating prospect; what on earth would serialism or atonality sound like dappled by the intense Aegean sun? It was an appealing thought, and to my mind the BIS edition has more than justified not only Papaiannou’s confidence in his friend’s singular corpus of work, but also that of both his teacher and his admirer Hans Keller. I find it miraculous that more than four decades later, in the last five weeks alone, four new Skalkottas discs have been released by four different labels. One of them is this fine new account of his unequivocally strange Piano Concerto No 3.

I am sure that in time much of Skalkottas’ sizeable output will emerge in multiple recordings. His music encompasses the entire span between extremely approachable (the glorious 36 Greek Dances) and inordinately tough (the Fourth Quartet). The present concerto unquestionably belongs at the latter end of this spectrum. I am astonished (and frankly thrilled) that this is its second recording. The first challenge for the new listener is its duration. Back in 2004 Geoffrey Douglas Madge made a heroic fist of the solo part in its first outing on BIS (review); the performance on that disc (with the Caput Ensemble of Iceland directed by Nikos Christodoulou) runs to a jaw-dropping 66 minutes, which puts it in the same bracket as the concertos of Busoni and Alan Bush. Which brings me to the next obstacle. Both Busoni and Bush deploy a big orchestra and a male choir to amplify their Olympian aspirations, whereas Skalkottas makes do with an ensemble of ten wind and brass plus percussion. I really liked the piece when I got to know the Madge recording although I felt (much as my fellow critic Tony Haywood did) that it was rather compromised by its considerable homogeneity of colour and expression as well as by its almost unprecedented length, although on the other hand the piece (in that recording) has never failed to hold my attention.

I believe the new recording offers a more convincing conception of this pungent, fierce music. It is thrillingly played and bathed in sound which manages to be both invitingly warm and forensically clear. The soloist is the explosive Belgian pianist Daan Vandewalle (who it turns out happens to be a long-standing collaborator of Geoffrey Douglas Madge) while the rasping reeds and valves of the Ghent-based contemporary group Blattwerk provide the accompaniment. The performance is directed by the contemporary specialist (and top-notch composer) Johannes Kalitzke. Crucially, this is a tighter, more concentrated reading which lops 12 minutes off the BIS account. It’s more exciting and propulsive, whilst Skalkottas’ more limpid ideas (there are some!) still have time to breathe.

The opening of the work evokes the flavours and textures of Berg’s Chamber Concerto. This introduction for the wind and brass is simultaneously long-breathed and dynamic – it ceases when a crash on the cymbals announces the entry of the soloist. I suspect new listeners will decide pretty quickly if they like this combination of sounds – I do, very much, but there is no sugar-coating the fact that Skalkottas’ language throughout the concerto is unrelentingly terse and unyielding. In comparison with the BIS recording, Vandewalle and Kalitzke do not hang around; there seems to be more in the way of certainty and drive. These Belgian players, especially Vandewalle have possibly benefitted from hearing the debut recording - an advantage that Madge didn’t have. There is something crude and invigorating about the bassoon and brass interjections in this new account of the first movement; the Caput Ensemble are possibly a tad more polite, understandably so given the scale and unfamiliarity of the work.

The second movement is marked Andante sostenuto and given that Vandewalle and Kalitzke knock a whopping seven minutes off the timing of the BIS disc (19 minutes compared to 26) it is no surprise that one detects more urgency and flow in their reading. As for Skalkottas’ music, the long introduction for the ensemble here is rather knottier than the equivalent in the first movement, but once the soloist enters the lyrical underbelly of the panel is easier for the listener to detect. I played the same movement on the BIS disc straight after this and found that Madge and Christodoulou didn’t drag as much as I expected – in fact arguably they find a little more poetry in its ruminative sections. But in the context of that whole performance I found the extreme length of the slow movement rather sapped this listener’s concentration and possibly even blunted the impact of the finale.

Vanderwalle is certainly more assured than Madge in this Allegro giocoso conclusion. Skalkottas’ piano writing is nothing if not angular, but I can certainly detect a sense of giocoso here that is now less apparent on the BIS disc. Blattwerk’s spiky accompaniment is both more characterful and colourful than that of their Icelandic rivals in this panel. Both Madge and Vandewalle are both successful in communicating the Schoenbergian lineage of this music, but to my ears it’s the Belgian pianist who better conveys the Hellenic warmth at its core.

Paladino’s recording leaves nothing to chance: Vandewalle’s piano sound is convincingly married to the colours Kalitzke conjures from the weird ensemble, while the sporadic percussion contributions are clean and crystalline. To be fair the BIS sound is splendidly managed too; Skalkottas’ strange instrumental requirements present a number of challenges that have been decisively met in both cases. Ultimately, even if the new account is more compact and a tad more humane, I’m glad to have any Skalkottas disc on my shelves and I most certainly won’t be discarding the BIS version any time soon. It is also worth reflecting that when this piece was premiered in London in 1969, the piano part was considered to be excessively demanding for just one soloist; Martin Rummel’s incisive text tells us that on that occasion Malcolm Binns, Roger Smalley and Thomas Rajna took a movement apiece. Thanks to the pioneering efforts of Geoffrey Douglas Madge and now Daan Vandewalle, things have certainly moved on in the last half century.

Richard Hanlon

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