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Nikos SKALKOTTAS (1904-1949)
The Neoclassical Skalkottas
Sinfonietta in B flat major AK 10 (1948) [23.59]
Classical symphony AK 9 (1947) [34.44]
Four Images (1948-49) AK 13 [12.49]
Ancient Greek March for chamber orchestra AK 11d (1946-7) [1.51]
Athens State Orchestra / Stefanos Tsialis
rec. 2018, Christos Lambrakis Hall & Athens State Orchestra Room, Megaron, Athens.
NAXOS 8.574154 [73.41]

If any of you have purchased the BIS recordings of Skalkottas’ music, a series that began at least twenty years ago, you will be quite surprised by the pieces on this CD. The Skalkottas of the later 40s was a different animal from the younger man who had studied with Schoenberg and became interested in and guided by twelve-tone technique. Perhaps you have come across the String Quartets or the 2nd Piano Concerto of 1937 – tough pieces. It seems however, much to my surprise and possibly yours, that in his last two years or so his style changed again.

So in 1933 Skalkottas chose to return to Athens and to play in the orchestra there, despite realising that fewer musical opportunities would be open to him. From then onwards he took a strong interest to studying in the Folk Music Archive in Athens the ethnic songs and dances he clearly loved and remembered from his childhood.

In these works Skalkottas is mixing classical techniques with Greek inflected melodies and rhythms. His Greek dances are quite well known and have often been recorded, but not this Sinfonietta and Classical Symphony. Let’s start with the former, the work that opens the CD. This is in four movements with a scherzino placed third. The finale is especially extraordinary and when the main tune returns gloriously towards the end I was reminded of Eric Coates! But throughout, the mood is excitable and never relents in its brilliance or its masterly orchestration. The outer movements are in sonata form and the scherzo has a fugue as a trio. The final ‘classical’ element is the naming of the key, Bb major with all of the usual modulations.

The Classical Symphony is classical in that the outer movements are again in sonata form. The finale has a seven-part fugue in place of a development section. There is a Scherzo placed third and the work’s opening entitled ‘A Little Overture’ with its fanfares returns at the end of the finale. It’s a very skilfully put together piece but what isn’t classical about it is the scoring for wind orchestra, two harps and double bass. In his very useful booklet notes (translated from the Greek, also provided) by Yannis Samprovalakis, we are reminded that Skalkottas, although a violinist, favoured scoring pieces for wind including a Concerto for Violin, Viol and Wind orchestra. The finale actually at times reminded me of Malcolm Arnold or even Lord Berners. Its title ‘A Merry March’ might explain why.

The Four Images are available on two other discs, which I have, one from the Iceland Symphony Orchestra under Byron Fidetzis (Bis 1384), the other from the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Nikos Christodoulou (BIS 1484). In fairness all interpretations are top quality with little to choose between them. The slow movement, ‘The Sowing’, is more sensitively handled by the Icelanders but this Naxos disc has generally more vivacity and the recording is brighter. This latter trait is sometimes not always pleasing elsewhere on the CD however. The piece is in four movements, utterly diatonic and with its other titles, ‘The Harvest’, ‘The Vintage’ and ‘The Grape’, it is clearly an attempt by the composer to make his music friendlier to audiences than that he was composing in Germany.

This sense of patrimony funnelled into the composition of the Ancient Greek March, which ends the disc. Possibly it is a little too political in concept, but this curiosity uses ancient Greek modes and parallel harmonic movement in homage to his homeland.

It’s ideal that the Athens orchestra, which Skalkottas played in, should have recorded these works, some of which the composer never heard but on which he splashed so much detail and attention. Apparently there is more from them to come. I look forward to it.

Gary Higginson

Previous review: Hubert Culot

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