SKALKOTTAS: Sinfonietta in Bb. Concerto for Violin, Piano & Orchestra (orch. Samprovalakis).+ Suite for Violin & Chamber Orchestra (orch. Samprovalakis). Digenés in his Last Agony.* Ancient Greek March. March. The Vlach Woman. The Maypole. Mount Pelion Dance. High Up on Kostilata. Corfiot Dance. Up the Street. Lioúlios. Paraskevoúla. Physoúni / +Georgios Demertzis, vln; +Vassilis Varvaresos, pno; *Eleftherios Venizelos, spkr; Athens Philharmonia Orch.; Byron Fidetzis, cond / Bis SACD-2434
Interestingly, this second new Skalkottas CD (actually an SACD) opens with the very same work one heard opening the Stefanos Tsialis CD on Naxos, the Sinfonietta in Bb, but Fidetzis takes it slower—the first movement runs 6:53 5o Tsialis’ 6:36, the second movement 6:36 to Tsialis’ 5:41, and the fourth movement 7:05 compared to 6:25 (the third movement is exactly the same tempo)—without damaging the music. In fact, I felt that this slower tempo gave the music more breathing room while still retaining excitement in the fast passages, and Bis’ SACD sonics are clearly more spectacular. Fidetzis also makes the last movement of this Sinfonietta sound closer in feel to Prokofiev than Tsialis did.
The second work on this disc is the Concerto for Violin, Piano & Orchestra from 1930 in an orchestration by Yannis Samprovalakis. This is the edgier, more modern-sounding Skalkottas of the Piano Concerto No. 3, thus I liked it very much, and here Fidetzis changes his conducting style towards a crisper, brisker, less legato approach than in the Sinfonietta, which works superbly. It’s also a remarkably compact work, lasting only 11 minutes, and not a single second is wasted in this brilliant, tightly-constructed piece.
The Suite for Violin & Chamber Orchestra, dating from a year earlier (1929), is in much the same vein—in fact, it almost sounds like a “test” composition for the Concerto. This work, however, had to be completely reconstructed from the surviving materials by Samprovalakis, and the fifth movement could not be resurrected as only the violin part has survived. This, and every other work on this disc except for the Sinfonietta, is an “only” recording available.
The next piece is very strange: Digenés in his Last Agony, a folk song transcription that he orchestrated. In this recording, Fidetzis uses the original 1930 recording of the vocal part made by then-Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos. The text is a Cretan variation, the booklet informs us, of a song belonging to the Akritic Cycle. By adding reverb to the old recording—a little too much, I think; pulling the reverb back a little would have made it sound a little less artificial, I think—they managed the trick fairly well.
The disc concludes with a series of “Two Marches and Nine Greek Dances” composed in 1946-47. Rather than list them as such in the header to this review, I have given their individual titles. These pieces are partly transcriptions and partly original works written for an event at the Athens Municipal Theater honoring the Greek heir apparent to the throne, George, and his bride Elizabeth of Romania. They’re nice pieces but, in my view, not really great or interesting ones. The dances are lively but, to my ears, also very militaristic in tone.
Overall, I enjoyed this SACD rather more than its Naxos counterpart because of the inclusion of some of Skalkottas’ more advanced compositions. What strikes me after hearing both CDs in addition to the Piano Concerto No. 3 is that Skalkottas seemed to be moving towards a more popular and populist style of composition in his last three years, undoubtedly in order to get more of his music played by the orchestras in which he was a violinist. This is kind of a shame, but then again, Aaron Copland followed a similar path in the late 1930s. All in all, however, this is an excellent disc that on should hear.
—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley
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