Nikos Skalkottas’ Third Piano Concerto

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SKALKOTTAS: Piano Concerto No. 3 / Daan Vandewalle, pno; Blattwerk; Johannes Kalitzke, cond / Paladino Music PMR 016

Here we go with yet another neglected composer, this one Greek. Nikos Skalkottas was born in Chalkida in March 1904, started violin lessons at the age of five and, after graduating from the Athens Conservatory at the age of 16, moved to Berlin in 1921 and, after continuing to study the violin with Willy Hess, turned his attention to becoming a composer in 1923. According to Wikipedia, “Between 1927 and 1932 he was a member of Arnold Schoenberg’s Masterclass in Composition at the Academy of Arts” and had two children with his lover, violinist Matla Temko, of which only his daughter survived infancy. “In March 1933 he was forced by poverty and debt to return to Athens, intending to stay a few months and then return to Berlin. However, he suffered a nervous breakdown and his passport was confiscated by the Greek authorities, apparently because he had never done military service, and remained in Greece for the rest of his life. Among the various possessions he left behind were a large number of manuscripts; many of these were then lost or destroyed (although some were found in a secondhand bookshop in 1954). According to another account, his manuscripts were sold by his German landlady shortly after he left Berlin… As a composer he worked alone, but wrote prolifically, mainly in his very personal post-Schoenbergian idiom that had little chance of being comprehended by the Greek musical establishment. He did secure some performances, especially of some of the Greek Dances and a few of his more tonal works, but the vast bulk of his music went unheard. During the German occupation of Greece he was placed in an internment camp for some months. In 1946 he married the pianist Maria Pangali; they had two sons. In 1949, at the age of 45 and shortly before the birth of his second son, he died of what appears to have been the rupture of a neglected common hernia, leaving some symphonic works with incomplete orchestration, and many completed works that were given posthumous premieres.”

The liner notes for this disc indicate that as a composer his name is known by many musicians but, probably due to his lack of fame and their difficulty, his works are almost never performed. This is only the third recording of this concerto, which was written in 1939. The first was by Danae Kara with the Orchestre National de Montpellier for Decca in 2004 (now out of print) and the second by Geoffrey Madge with the Caput Ensemble conducted by Nikos Christodoulou for Bis in 2005 (still available).

What’s ironic about this is that, all things considered, his music is lyrical atonalism, more like Berg than Schoenberg. In fact, if you were to take the top line of the first movement and score it to more conventional harmony, it might have been accepted and performed in its day. Even as it is, however, it is more accessible to an open mind (yeah, I know…talk to those people who just want to hear more Chopin and Tchaikovsky) than some of Schoenberg’s works or the large orchestral works of Artur Schnabel. It’s also obvious that Skalkottas had a very fastidious mind: nothing in this music is superfluous, padding, or otherwise wasted gesture. It all makes sense and despite its atonalism flows with grace in addition to being logically constructed.

Skalkottas was also a masterful orchestrator. Absolutely none of his orchestral textures are cluttered, let alone dense; there is an almost continuous transparency of sound that invites the listener to pay attention lest he or she might miss something. Interestingly, the most atonal lines seem to be assigned to two instruments in particular, the trumpets and the clarinet, although occasional peeps from a flute and an oboe make their way into the work’s texture. Part of the reason for the symphony’s great clarity is that he uses no strings; it is written for trumpet, nine winds, piano and percussion.

Interestingly, too, Skalkottas retained the sonata form in this first movement, and although the second movement is considered to be “free-form” there are elements of sonata form here as well. As for the piano part, it is considered so demanding that when this concerto was given its world premiere in 1969, three different pianists were used. It wasn’t until 1985 that one pianist, Geoffrey Madge, played in a performance of it.

Interestingly, the rhythm in the third movement resembles a polka somewhat… but a Greek polka?..in which one hears the tuba quite prominently in the early sections. At the 12:26 mark, we suddenly hear smashing percussion that sounds for all the world like something by early George Antheil or Harry Partch. Now, this has a snappy beat for dancing! But seriously, this is the kind of work that takes several listening to catch all the various and sundry things going on in it, yet the effort is worth it. This is truly a masterpiece.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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