On record – Lorenda Ramou – From Berlin to Athens: Skalkottas Piano Works (BIS)

Skalkottas
Griechische Suite A/K79a (1924)
(Suite) A/K79b (1924)
Sonatina A/K75b (1927)
15 kleine Variationen A/K75c (1927)
Suites – no.2 A/K72 (1940); no.3 A/K73 (1941); no.4 A/K74 (1941)
The Gnomes A/K110 (1939)

Lorenda Ramou (piano)

BISBIS 2364SACD [87’43’’]

Producer & Engineer Christian Starke

Recorded October and November 2017 at Reitstadel, Neumarkt in der Oberpfalz

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Between 1998 and 2008 BIS undertook a ground-breaking series devoted to Nikos Skalkottas (1904-1949), and this new release features almost all the music for solo piano that was still to be collated. The result is a fascinating journey through one facet of this fascinating composer.

What’s the music like?

As Lorenda Ramou indicates, this recital divides into three parts.

The first of these comprises music written in Berlin during Skalkottas’s study there, including the composer’s two earliest surviving works. Greek Suite is a quirkily appealing amalgam of neo-classical and traditional stylisms with distinct jazz overtones in its closing movement. The ‘Suite’ (its title can only be conjectured as the first two pages of music are missing) develops these influences on a larger scale, not least the scintillating Shimmy tempo finale. Come the Sonatina and Skalkottas’s language has evolved apace – hence the expressively detached Siciliano, then restive finale with its ominous coda; an upbeat to the masterly 15 Little Variations on a Beethoven-inspired theme that finds a natural climax in its laconic recollection following a subdued apotheosis.

The next three pieces were all written in Athens during Skalkottas’s ‘inner exile’ after being repatriated. Ramou’s implication that the Second, Third and Fourth Suites (the earlier First Suite was recorded by Nikolaos Samaltanos on BIS1133/4) form an extended sequence that fuses this composer’s preoccupation with ‘classical’ and popular’ formal archetypes in his mature post-tonal language. Highlights include the angular virtuosity of no.2’s Rapsodie, the inexorable motion of no.3’s Marcia funebre, and the oblique wistfulness of no.4’s Serenade. Performable (also listenable to) separately or as a 30-minute continuum, these confirm Skalkottas’s mastery of a medium about which he often felt equivocal yet to which he contributed some of the most thought-provoking music from the mid-twentieth century.

Also written in Athens, The Gnomes was intended to accompany a Christmas dance-show but rhythmic difficulty led Skalkottas to orchestrate a selection of miniatures by other composers under an identical title (recorded by the Caput Ensemble on BIS1364). Relocated in 2015, the present piece unfolds in two parts of six and three items – the former as tensile and impulsive as the latter – notably an Intermezzo (Chorale) – are hieratic and evocative. What the scenario depicted is unclear, though the presence of a Greek carol rather suggests something seasonal.

Does it all work?

To varying degrees according to when the music was written. The Variations and three Suites can rank with the finest Skalkottas compositions, while the early pieces and The Gnomes are fascinating subsidiary items. Nothing here should be without interest for discerning pianists.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. Ramou is a perceptive guide throughout, even if certain of the more extrovert pieces could evince greater panache. Among the previously recorded works, those from Samaltanos (BIS) of the Sonatina and Variations are coupled with the 16 Melodies, with those by Steffen Schleiermacher (MDG) and Lefki Katanou-Lindahl (Caprice) of Third and Fourth Suites part of miscellaneous recitals. At nearly 88 minutes, this is among the longest discs yet issued, but the range and depth of the SACD sound is wholly commensurate with BIS’s usual standards.

Stream

Buy

For more information on this release and to purchase in multiple formats visit the BIS website

Live review – Yulianna Avdeeva, CBSO / Constantinos Carydis – Skalkottas, Tchaikovsky & Beethoven

Yulianna Avdeeva (below, piano), City of Birmingham Symphony OrchestraConstantinos Carydis (above)

Photo credits: Thomas Brill (Constantinos Carydis), C Schneider (Yulianna Avdeeva) 

Symphony Hall, Birmingham. Thursday October, 2018

Skalkottas Four Images (1948)
Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto no.1 in B flat minor Op.23 (1875)
Koukos In Memoriam Y. A. Papaioannou (1989)
Beethoven Symphony no.7 in A major Op.92 (1812)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Conductors are not obliged to programme their compatriots, though Constantinos Carydis certainly rang the changes by including music by Nikos Skalkottas (1904-49) – who, along with Xenakis, is undoubtedly the leading Greek classical composer from the 20th century.

Nor is the City of Birmingham Symphony unacquainted with his work, having given the first complete performance of his First Symphonic Suite in 1972. That piece typifies the intricate, serially-derived music of his earlier maturity, whereas the Four Images comes from his last years when tonal music predominated. Derived from a longer ballet score for piano, these characterful miniatures amply evoke folk scenes (without using actual folk themes) in a way recalling Bartók’s Dance Suite or, more directly, the dances from Ginastera‘s ballet Estancia.

Carydis accordingly had their measure – whether the forceful rhythms and acerbic harmonies of The Harvest, or wistful pathos of The Sowing with its resplendent, bell-capped climax. After this, The Vintage provides a scherzo of no mean propulsion and Carydis was right to lead directly into The Grape Stomping for a finale of scintillating vigour and impetus. Such were the qualities that the CBSO brought to this music, in what was a captivating account of a piece which could easily become as familiar as those aforementioned given such advocacy.

Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto has never wanted for exponents, so credit to Yulianna Avdeeva for her engaging perspective on music to which the ‘war-horse’ epithet is too often applicable. The indelible opening melody was majestic without being portentous, with the imposing first movement convincingly held together so that the accrued momentum carried through to a searching take on its lengthy cadenza. There was no lack of deftness during the Andantino, replete with woodwind playing of real elegance, while the finale had energy to spare on its way to a surging peroration. This is an impressive interpretation in the making.

As well as his illustrious forebears, Carydis was intent on promoting the music of his Greek contemporaries. Well regarded for his operas, Periklis Koukos (b.1960) is little known in the UK, but the tribute to his teacher In Memoriam Y. A. Papaioannou suggests a composer of no mean eloquence – this threnody for strings not a little redolent of Nino Rota in its restrained sentiment, and a solo violin part that leader Anna-Liisa Bezrodny rendered with ideal poise.

Carydis then headed directly into Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, here given a reading that was always invigorating and often electrifying. Dynamic contrasts occasionally verged on the contrived, and the repeat of the scherzo’s hymnal trio was almost parodic in its stateliness, but these were outweighed by the power and incisiveness elsewhere. Carydis drove the CBSO hard in the finale, but the players admirably rose to the challenge – antiphonal violins to the fore as the coda reached its visceral culmination. Whatever its inconsistencies, this was a performance to reaffirm the greatness of this music, as an enthusiastic reception testified.

A persuasive programme of the evergreen and unfamiliar. Should Carydis include Skalkottas’ ballet The Maiden and Death in a future engagement with the CBSO, then so much the better.

Tonight’s concert will be repeated at Symphony Hall on Sunday 7th October at 3pm. For more information on future CBSO concerts head to their website