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Nikos SKALKOTTAS (1904-1949)
Dances of the Waves
Greek Dances, Series I (1931-35) [25.28]
The Sea: three excerpts for chamber orchestra (1949) [12.18]
Suite No 1 (1929, reconstructed 1935) [35.10]
Athens State Orchestra/Stefanon Tsialis
rec. Christos Lambrakis Hall, Megaron, Athens, 18-25 July 2019
NAXOS 8.574182 [73.01]

Nikos Skalkottas is one of those peculiarly schizophrenic composers – Alberto Ginastera from Argentina is another – who seem to combine a passion for the folk idioms of their native country with a desire to write heavily dodecaphonic music of a more serious and academically ‘respectable’ hue, without ever quite achieving a synthesis between these two aspects of their style. Unlike the long-lived Ginastera, Skalkottas died relatively young before he could establish much of a reputation outside his native country; but his sets of Greek Dances did serve to gain him a degree of fame during his lifetime, and have kept his name before the public in the years since his death. The complete set of 36 dances appeared back in 2006 on the BIS label, but the other two works on this disc – which is billed as part of an ongoing cycle of the composer’s orchestral music – are world première recordings, at least in this form.

The earliest work here, the Suite No 1 for large orchestra, is also by a long way the thorniest as well as the most extended on the disc. It was originally written in 1929 when Skalkottas was studying in Berlin with Arnold Schoenberg, and it adopts his teacher’s twelve-tone style lock stock and barrel. When he left Berlin in 1933 to visit his native Athens, Skalkottas left some seventy scores behind, expecting to return; but the advent of Hitler put paid to any such plans, and six years later he reconstructed the score from memory – perhaps a slightly easier task with a mathematically constructed piece, but nonetheless an impressive feat. The work however remained unperformed, and was not even premièred until over twenty years after the composer’s death – not in Greece, nor in Germany, but in Birmingham. The booklet note by Yannis Samprovalakis (given in Greek with English translation) does not seek to explain why, after all this effort, Skalkottas seems to have given up any attempt to secure a performance. It may be that the opportunity simply did not present itself.

Be that as it may, it must be admitted that the suite is an uneven work – Skalkottas’s first attempt at a twelve-tone piece for large orchestra – and the business of the reconstruction appears, certainly in the first three movements, to have robbed the music of much of what might have been its original sense of discovery. The opening overture, the longest of the six movements, is decidedly fragmentary; the theme and variations which follow suffer from a theme which persistently fails to stick in the memory, and thereby renders the subsequent variations meaningless; and the third-movement march with its spiky rhythms would seem to defy any meaningful attempt to march to it. But then suddenly things improve drastically, with a seven-minute Romance which has a wistful sense of melancholy and builds to an impassioned climax, a Siciliano-Barcarole which sounds more like a sinister waltz, and a Finale-Rondo which bristles with rhythmic life and rounds off the suite with a real sense of enthusiasm. It is only in these final three movements that one gets much sense of Skalkottas as a composer; the earlier sections of the score sound very much of a muchness with the reams of other dreary serial compositions that emerged from European academies during the 1940s and 1950s, and all that can be said of Skalkottas here is that he was somewhat ahead of his time.

But then by the 1940s Skalkottas had moved on again, or possibly moved back, and his ‘folk ballet’ The Sea, one of his final compositions before his early and sudden death, shows a reversion to his earlier style before the influence of Schoenberg had made itself felt. The complete work was included in the BIS series of discs – or at least the symphonic suite from the ballet for large orchestra, consisting of eleven movements of an impressionist richness which give the music a real sense of grandeur and purpose. Skalkottas never heard the complete score, but he did hear the three movements included here in his own arrangement for chamber orchestra prepared for a school festival organised by the Greek Touring Club. It must be said that the arrangement, especially when one knows the full orchestral version, is very much a second-best. The Ravel-like intensity of the central nocturne is rather spoiled when the colouristic percussion assumes a more prominent role in the chamber textures, and the final Dance of the Waves really begs for the weight of a full brass and string section to counterbalance the wailing woodwind lines. I presume that the Naxos series will in due course provide us with the complete symphonic suite.

The Greek Dances which commence the disc are, however, a totally unalloyed delight. Skalkottas carefully avoids any suggesting of garish picture-postcard Greek festivities, and supplements authentic Greek folk material with elements of his own composition rather in the manner of Bartók (or indeed Vaughan Williams). This, as Yannis Samprovalakis observes rather heavy-handedly, serves “short yet self-contained musical forms based on the dialectic relationship between unity (continuity) and antithesis, ultimately aiming at a balance of form and content – elements which act cumulatively to produce a monumental work for Greek culture.” Well, quite. What we actually get is an essentially light-hearted observation of traditional Greek idioms, which mirrors similar treatments of English material by Percy Grainger or Norwegian material by Geirr Tveitt. And great fun it is, with plenty of unexpected quirks to perk up the interest. None of the pieces outstay their welcome, and some achieve an unusual sense of melancholy to counterbalance the high spirits elsewhere.

The booklet observes of Skalkottas that the orchestra are “happy to honour his memory by systematically performing and recording his works.” They do him proud in the Greek Dances, and although one can imagine a beefier string sound in for example the rondo finale of the Suite the pinpoint accuracy of their playing is very satisfactory; only in the chamber orchestration of The Sea could one wish for something with more weight. The fact that this is the second in an ongoing series is all the more reason for congratulation and rejoicing, and the recorded acoustic and sound is excellent.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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