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Nikos SKALKOTTAS (1904-1949)
Sinfonietta in B flat major (1948) [23:59]
Classical Symphony (1947) [34:44]
Four Images (1948/9) [12:49]
Ancient Greek March (1946/7) [1:51]
Athens State Orchestra/Stefanos Tsialis
rec. 2018, Athens State Orchestra rehearsal room; Christos Lambrakis Hall, Athens
NAXOS 8.574154 [73:41]

The disc closely follows a recent BIS release, which Jonathan Woolf reviewed enthusiastically; it includes the Sinfonietta, also recorded here. I realise that I am not the only one to question the “neoclassical” tag attached to both discs, even if the works they present are light years away from the atonal or serial pieces which Skalkottas composed at some stages of his career. The Sinfonietta, a really fine work in a more readily accessible musical style, retains many of the composer’s characteristics. There is little difference between this performance and that on BIS, in which Byron Fidetzis conducts the Athens Philharmonia Orchestra. I find the present reading marginally crisper, lighter and on the whole livelier than its contender, but this may be due to the different acoustics.

The Classical Symphony, scored for wind orchestra, two harps and double basses, ought not to be compared with Prokofiev’s work of the same title; to begin with, the scoring differs. It is a substantial work in four movements, full of imaginative writing for winds, a medium that the composer was fond of. I see it as a marvellous concerto for wind orchestra, calling for the utmost resources of such an ensemble. (Interestingly, Skalkottas wrote a concerto for wind orchestra, which is lost so far. Also, the monumental Piano Concerto No. 3, one of his most uncompromising works, is scored for an ensemble of ten winds.) The Classical Symphony is a powerful achievement that deserves to be widely known. It has the musical substance and the remarkably deft handling of the orchestral forces. In a word, it is a great piece of music and a most welcome addition to Skalkottas’s discography.

The Four Images have been recorded before (review). The music comes from the dance suite The Land and the Sea of Greece (1948) for solo piano, composed for the pianist and music teacher Polyxene Mathéy. The last two movements were the model for the folk ballet The Sea. The remaining four were reworked for symphony orchestra as Four Images. This beautifully scored and colourful piece is a fine example of tonal, accessible style which Skalkottas adopted in the mid-1940s while again retaining his personality.

This generously filled disc concludes with a rarity. The Ancient Greek March is actually the opening movement of Two Marches and Nine Greek Dances which Skalkottas composed for the Lyceum Club of Greek Women. The nine dances are considerably simpler and more straightforward than those in the three big sets of Greek dances. The whole suite, on that recent BIS issue, is a most enjoyable find in its own right.

I thoroughly enjoyed these well-recorded, committed performances. Skalkottas was one of Greece’s greatest composers. Anyone interested in his achievements will want to investigate twenty BIS discs devoted to his music.

Hubert Culot

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