SKALKOTTAS: Concerto No. 2 for Piano and Orchestra; Tema con Variazioni; Little Suite for Strings; Four Images – Geoffrey Douglas Madge, piano/ BBC Symphony Orchestra/ Nikos Christodoulou – BIS

by | Nov 29, 2006 | SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews | 0 comments

SKALKOTTAS: Concerto No. 2 for Piano and Orchestra; Tema con Variazioni; Little Suite for Strings; Four Images – Geoffrey Douglas Madge, piano/ BBC Symphony Orchestra/ Nikos Christodoulou – BIS Multichannel SACD 1484, 70:41 ****:

The music of Nikos Skalkottas (1904-1949) first came to my attention through the efforts of conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos, who periodically programmed several of the Op. 11 Greek Dances and recorded four of them. Conductor Nikos Christodoulou (b. 1959) has recorded (20-22 April 2004) with Australian pianist Geoffrey Douglas Madge (of Busoni’s integral piano music fame) the Second Piano Concerto of 1937, a work directly influenced by Skalkottas’ studies with Arnold Schoenberg in Berlin. Utilizing groups of tone rows, Skalkottas has fashioned an organically conceived work that remains true to its own internal logic, though its emotional tenor is harder to define. Rather melancholy overall, the music occasionally bursts into fanfares and somber declamations, repeated riffs of a certain gloomy character. The music stays within traditional sonata-form despite its eerie syntax. Laconic, like all music that must avoid a definite tonality, the orchestration does exploit some colors, like the clarinet and the piano’s middle and high registers. The last movement, Allegro moderato, is percussive in flavor, the emotional tenor alternately aggressive and reflective, not too far from Bartok’s first two piano concertos. A lyrical element is no less present, but don’t expect to whistle any melodies real soon.

The Theme and Variations is the last work the composer created prior to his untimely death, a Neoclassical piece in severe colors. Skalkottas uses sixteen twelve-tone series, making him both an acolyte of Schoenberg and an original mind at once. Intricately complex and exploratory, the music proves a labyrinth, exploiting the harmonic and melodic possibilities of each of the rows it presents, a kind of musical, post-Atomic Age Kafka. Variation two is an agonized sort of march that climbs high in registration and then fades away. A whistling piccolo leads off the third variation over staccato strings, followed by a canon, the melody diving into lower registers; but then, with some 66 bars left of the piano score, the orchestration ends. The Little Suite (1942) is quite brief, a concentrated study in atonal polyphony. The challenge to the composer seems to make clear the multifarious lines he manipulates. Discerning listeners may note how Skalkottas uses retrograde to make his second movement theme end diaphanously. The last movement, Allegro vivo, is a witty etude for first violins supported by canonic colors. The coda becomes quite frenzied, a strong fortissimo statement concluding the stringent procession.

Like the Tema con Variazioni, the Four Images (1948) receives its world premier recording here on BIS. Rather vocal and eminently lyrical, the Images enjoy the same buoyant energy of the 36 Greek Dances, if a bit less risky harmonically. The four images depict aspects of agrarian life: harvest, seeding, vintage, and winepress. The second movement, in E Minor, finally permitted me to savor the surround sound medium without my ears wincing. The third movement, a hearty dance with xylophone, could provide the music for a dance sequence from a movie, if Jason and his Argonauts were entertained by sybarites. The Wine-Press is even more Dionysiac, which seems fitting. An important issue this disc, though suspect only the Four Images will achieve any popular shelf life.

— Gary Lemco

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