Skalkottas Two Concertos for Violin BIS

Nikos Skalkottas (1904-1949)
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (1937/1938)
Concerto for Violin, Viola,and Wind Instruments (1940)
George Zacharias (violin), Alexandros Koustos (viola)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins
rec. 2020/22, Henry Wood Hall, London
BIS BIS-2554 SACD [58]

When I spent some four months of 1981 in Greece, I made it my mission to find as many scores and recordings of Nikos Skalkottas’s music as I could. I only found two songs, one piano piece and the Octet, and scratchy LP recordings of some of the orchestral Greek Dances. In the mid-1990s, BIS began to record his orchestral and then chamber works – in time, I thought, for his centenary in 2004.

The series continued till 2008 (for example review ~ review ~ review ~ review ~ review; there is a good deal more). Then things went rather silent. Skalkottas was prolific but with some seventeen discs it seemed the collection had run out of steam. A few years ago BIS issued a disc of concertante and orchestra music (review) and a disc of piano music (review). The present disc is a rare occasion when a British orchestra and a British conductor tackle this highly complex music; BIS had often employed the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and the Thessaloniki State Symphony Orchestra.

Skalkottas fascinated me, especially at that earlier time. He was Schoenberg’s pupil and the follower of his twelve-tone technique. I thought: here is a composer of rare quality, who might mix Greek ethnic elements with Schoenbergian influences.

 In 1997, violinist Georgios Demertzis and the Malmö Symphony Orchestra recorded the same Violin Concerto (review) but in an earlier edition; Dr. Eva Mantzourani prepared this edition. It was written when the composer was isolated in Athens as the Nazi war machine started to exert its power. Skalkottas developed at that time his own serial technique. The violinist George Zacharias’s booklet essay describes it as serial fractals giving, it seems, the impression of multi-layered serialism. He writes that the composer wanted to create “a mathematical system without sacrificing the inherent warmth and familiar feeling of tonal romanticism”.

The Andante spirito middle movement in ternary form (the spirito is not obvious) could fall very much into the romantic category. The first movement is a Molto appassionato and the finale in sonata form is an Allegro vivo vivacissimo – Prestissimo. The problem for some listeners may be the sheer intensity of the music, on the lines of Alban Berg, except that it is even more polyphonic and active. It can be difficult to follow what the composer is doing but his sounds are uniquely fascinating. George Zacharias’s performance is stunning.

It comes as a bit of a surprise that the beginning of the Concerto for Violin, Viola and Wind orchestra brings something that amounts to a series of brass fanfare figures (there are six horns three trumpets, three trombones and two tubas ). Such almost militaristic rhythms do not seem very Skalkottas. When, however, one considers the unique scoring, including the first time that all four saxophones were used in a classical work, the unique sound-world of this extraordinary concerto becomes quite gripping. There is some influence of jazz (which the Nazis tried to ban). This may not be obvious, but careful listening will show these traits especially in the sonata-form third movement. The first movement, also in a clear sonata form, is very busy and contrapuntal. In the lyrical second movement, the soloists weave their lines around the brass harmonies. Skalkottas wrote the piece with colleague and viola player in mind: John Papadopoulos sat near the composer in the Athens State Orchestra. If you feel that the first movement‘s moto perpetuo is a tough nut the crack, then hang in there: the other two are more approachable.

The whole project is admirable. The performers are amazing in many ways, and one wonders how most of them approached such complex and unfamiliar music in an attempt to bring it to life.

Zacharias wrote a succinct essay on each work. There also is Skalkottas’s brief essay Treatise on orchestration and the Two Concertos, written appropriately whilst the concertos were being composed. Its message, quite technical, is to do with the balancing of orchestral colours and the subtle difference between orchestration and instrumentation. Students should look into this little-known publication!

The sound quality is, needless to say, up to BIS’s highest standard.

Gary Higginson

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