Christopher Vassiliades

Nikos Skalkottas: Concerto for 2 Violins; Concertino for 2 Pianos; Nocturnal Amusement

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BIS' investigation of Greek composer Nikos Skalkottas' oeuvre is getting into his latest and least-known concerted repertoire with its Skalkottas: Concerto for Two Violins and Orchestra (1945). It features violinists Georgios Demertzis and Simos Papanas with Vassilis Christopoulos and the Thessaloniki State Symphony Orchestra in the concerto; the same body supports pianists Maria Asteriadou and Nikolaos Samaltanos in Skalkottas' Concertino (1935) and xylophonist Dimitris Dessyllas in his tiny Characteristic Piece "Nocturnal Amusement" (1949). The first movement of the double violin concerto sounds like Bach's D minor Double Violin Concerto with wrong notes added, composed as it is within an early application of the twelve-tone system and sounding very much like the music of Skalkottas' teacher Arnold Schoenberg. The second movement Andante is certainly the most striking in this concerto, based on a rebetic melody -- "rebetiko" is roughly the Greek equivalent of the blues, and in Skalkottas' time considered disreputable -- which hovers over an arid, nocturnal cityscape well achieved in Kostis Demertzis' realization of the orchestral accompaniment, which Skalkottas left only in a short score form. The finale is back in the purely twelve-tone arena, only this time Skalkottas is modeling on romantically styled finale movements and even indulges some joyously anarchic, atonal march figures.

BIS has also recorded the Concerto for two violins and orchestra before in the form Skalkottas left it; this new orchestration is sufficiently different enough from its model that it is certainly worth recording, but some listeners might not need both. Perhaps bearing that in mind, BIS has included Skalkottas' Concertino for two pianos and orchestra. It resembles what Schoenberg's Piano Concerto might have sounded like had he scored it for two pianos instead of one, with caveats being that (a) Schoenberg hadn't written his piano concerto yet and (b) Skalkottas' scoring is not as dense as Schoenberg's -- he approaches it with a lighter, nearly neo-classical touch. The xylophone solo is delightful fun, a bright and witty showpiece without the slightest pretense of being serious.

With this disc, the 16th or so entry in its decade-long Skalkottas series, BIS exhausts his orchestral music, and it seems like a good time to look back and see what we have thereby gained. A Fanfare magazine reviewer once wrote, in an oft-repeated quote, "Skalkottas may have an individual voice, but he speaks a universal language, and his discovery is a cause of rejoicing." Very well, but once one gets outside of the Greek Dances and Le Retour de Ulysse, the less "universal" his language tends to be. It seems to settle within a provincial Greek idiom, albeit an imaginatively realized one, or in the realm of pre-war serialism not by the big three -- Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg. Skalkottas does not entirely manage to transcend these highly specialized areas of interest, and while this does not denigrate his singular achievement, it does limit his potential in terms of reaching a broader audience. Under the circumstances, one wonders whether it's judicious for BIS to continue this series at the pace already established. While all of this music is welcome, Skalkottas' fortunes on CD went from next to nothing to a lot in a very short time, and perhaps this would be a good opportunity to take stock and see if some of this stuff takes hold before proceeding further.

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