Nikos Christodoulou

Nikos Skalkottas: Piano Concerto No. 3; The Gnomes

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Outside of Alban Berg, Anton Webern, and Hanns Eisler, Arnold Schoenberg's most gifted European pupil was probably Greek composer Nikolaos Skalkottas. The Swedish label BIS has devoted at least 13 discs to his neglected output, and the main work featured here is the first recording of a monument of early serial composition, Skalkottas' Piano Concerto No. 3 (1939), a work so difficult that at its 1969 premiere three different pianists were employed to play its individual movements. BIS manages to get along in utilizing one very fine pianist, Geoffrey Douglas Madge.

Scored for piano and 10 wind instruments, Concerto No. 3 is like a cross between Schoenberg's yet unwritten Piano Concerto, Op. 42, and Colin McPhee's 1928 Concerto for Piano and Wind Octet. However, at a length of 66 minutes Skalkottas' concerto is longer than both those works put together and played twice; it is one of the longest piano concertos ever written. Although a twelve-tone work, the piece abounds with wit, sarcasm, allusions to popular music, and even some properties of lyricism and sentimentality. The serial "rows" are only loosely applied, and by the judgment of a later cadre of arch-serial proponents there are many features of Skalkottas' approach that would be branded as "no-nos" -- one can hear the row turn around, transpositions are easily apparent, and other things. Nevertheless, Concerto No. 3 is very musical, is played here with familiarity and authority by Geoffrey Douglas Madge, and devotees of twelve-tone music will not be able to help but be awestruck by both this work and its performance. For Skalkottas to have scored such a lengthy work for wind ensemble consisting of mostly serial-derived pitches almost seems like asking for trouble, but the amusingly named Caput Ensemble plays everything with miraculous precision and certain intonation.

As one can imagine, with a concerto this long there is not much room left for filler material. That which BIS has chosen could hardly be more different from the main work than it is, music Skalkottas wrote and arranged for a Christmas ballet given that same year, The Gnomes. Also written in 1939, this consists of short pieces drawn from the works of Bartók and Stravinsky that Skalkottas orchestrated at the request of the choreographer, to which he added three numbers of his own. They are simple, enchanting, and even "cute," everything Skalkottas' Concerto No. 3 is not.

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