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Nikos SKALKOTTAS (1904-1949)
Suite for violin and little orchestra: version for violin and piano, AK23 (1929) [11:50]
Songs: The Music, AK89 (1946) [1:32]: On the Beach, AK89a (1946) [2:32]: Once Upon A Time, AK81 (1938) [2:23] (1938)
The Return of Odysseus, overture for Great Orchestra, adapt. two pianos, AK5a (1944-45; 1949) [23:11]
Twelve Greek Dances, from cycle of 36 dances, AK11 (1931-49) [33:19]
Sifneikos I (AK11b) [1:18] and Ipirotikos I (AK11b) [1:57] AK76 adapt piano solo (1946-47)
Nina Pissareva Zymbalist (violin): Nikolaos Samaltanos (piano)
Angelica Cathariou (mezzo-soprano): Christophe Sirodeau (piano)
Nikolaos Samaltanos and Christophe Sirodeau (pianos)
Tota Economos (piano)
Little Symphony Orchestra of San Francisco/Gregory Millar
rec. 1949-2019, Temple Saint Michel, Paris; Great Hall of Moscow Conservatory; San Francisco; French Radio, Paris
MELISM MLSCD025 [78:58]

There’s a good mix of Ancient and Modern about this release, the first volume in Melism’s Skalkottas series. It wears a World Premiere look, too, containing the first known recording of any of his music – the two piano pieces recorded by Tota Economos in 1949 – and the stereo Twelve Greek Dances from 1957, as well as offering all-première recordings of the remainder of the programme.

An orchestrated version of the Suite for violin and chamber orchestra has recently appeared on BIS. Melism’s recording, made back in July 2019, is of the version made by the composer for violin and piano. The orchestrated version (now lost; BIS’s is a reconstruction) was premièred in Berlin in 1930 with soloist Anatol Knorre and an ensemble directed by composer and conductor Karel (Karl) Mengelberg. The violin-and-piano version in fact lays bare the tartness and attractive asperity of some of the writing and the performers here, experts in their field (and that field very much includes Skalkottas) evoke both its neo-classical affiliations as well as its sustained, deft and refractive moments. In fact, both this stripped-back version and the chamber orchestration – which can only be speculative as Skalkottas’ original is no longer extant – are complementary. BIS did not include an orchestration of the final, fifth movement as the piano part no longer exists. Melism’s solution is to go boldly ahead by allowing Nina Pissareva Zymbalist to play just the violin part.

The three songs, sung by Angelica Cathariou, are all concise and offer stylistic variety. On the Beach inclines to popular romance, The Music reveals a rhythmic debt to Weill and the third, Once Upon A Time, offers some abrupt twelve-tone. The Return of Odysseus is an orchestral overture for large orchestra and was premièred by Antal Doráti in London in 1969. It’s performed here by Samaltanos and Christophe Sirodeau – their heroic joint recording of Samuil Feinberg’s piano sonatas may be known to you – in a Moscow performance from 1994, since edited and mastered. The two-piano adaptation is the composer’s own work and sounds like a nightmarish business for the musicians to co-ordinate, not least in the long second section (tracked 10, a long and fast Allegro molto vivace), the blistering Fuga and the compelling, fast Prestissimo finale. No praise is too high for the performers’ skill here.

The Twelve Greek Dances (1931-49) were recorded in 1957 by the Little Symphony Orchestra of San Francisco under the conductor Gregory Millar (born Grigorios Manoussos). Previously transferred in mono, this is its first stereo appearance and the music’s pungency and rhythmic vitality comes over well even though the stereo itself is just a tad bleached. Once again Weimar hues are present (Kritikos I) as well as zesty, brassy skirling music. Ipirotikos 1 is especially brilliantly done as are the slow delights of Ipirotikos II. Finally, there is the matter of those first known Skalkottas recordings, three minutes or so of French radio recordings of Sifneikos I and Ipirotikos 1 performed in Paris by Tota Economos – very dapperly and stylishly done. The transcriptions are Skalkottas’ own work and it seems likely that he gave them directly to her to perform. It’s not quite clear, given she recorded them in the year of his death, whether this was an in memoriam, or whether he was still alive.

Melism’s booklet is itself stylishly compiled with many a photographic reproduction in black and white and in colour – manuscripts, archive concert programmes, recital flyers are included. Samaltanos’ notes are an important contribution.

This is a discriminating label and it has done its subject proud with this release.

Jonathan Woolf

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