Tsialis Conducts Skalkottas

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SKALKOTTAS: Sinfonietta in B. Classical Symphony for Wind Orchestra, 2 Harps & Basses.* 4 Images for Orchestra. Ancient Greek March / *Ioannis Karampetsos, cnt; Athens State Orch.; Stefanos Tsialis, cond / Naxos 8.574154

Nikos Skalkottas, whose Piano Concerto No. 3 I raved about in an earlier review, is here represented by four of his Neoclassic works from his last years (1946-49). Although the music is clearly more melodic and less edgy than the Piano Concerto No. 3, it still has the kind of underlying modern harmonies, and the lean sonorities, that characterized Stravinsky’s Neoclassic period (L’Histoire du Soldat, Le Baiser de la Fée, Persephone, etc.). In this style, then, Skalkottas could easily become a repertoire composer if enough orchestras would wake up and start programming him.

The Sinfonietta heard here starts off, in fact, almost in a Romantic vein, but a couple of minutes into it becomes edgier by degrees. By the end of the first movement, we have really rip-roaring music. Yet in the second movement, “Andantino triste,” we hear music that is more like the “modern” Skalkottas, a bit edgier except for a surprisingly Romantic-sounding slow passage for solo violin. It may be worth noting that the Athens State Orchestra was the organization that Skalkottas himself belonged to, as a violinist, from the time of its formation in 1943 until his early death in 1949.

Oddly enough, though it features a wind orchestra, two harpists, a cornet soloist and double basses, Skalkottas’ Classical Symphony of 1947 is less “classical” except in form. Here, the harmonies are almost consistently edgy but not full-out bitonal or atonal, and the composer revels in the bright sonorities of the wind orchestra, particularly in the almost surreal-sounding “Scherzo” and the final “Merry March.” This is its first commercial recording.

One of the things I liked about Stefanos Tsialis’ conducting was its brisk, no-nonsense approach, although I recognize that this style can sound a bit brusque to ears that are used to more rhythmic “give-and-take” within a performance. The Athens State Orchestra responds with bright, peppy, energetic playing from all sections, and that compensates for a lot.

The 4 Images for Orchestra combine elements of the Sinfonietta and Classical Symphony—the general form of the first with the more biting orchestration of the latter. I liked them but wasn’t crazy about them except for the third, titled “The Vintage: Allegro.” As for the Ancient Greek March, I suppose it means more to Greeks than it does to me. It’s not very imaginatively treated or scored.

If my reaction to some of this music is less than enthusiastic, you must remember that I started out with one of Skalkottas’ great masterpieces, a sort of Mount Everest of his work. With these pieces, I am crawling down the mountain backwards, still looking up at the Piano Concerto No. 3, and in ascending to his lower level music I admit that it’s better than a lot of stuff being written about that time but by no means his best. Nonetheless, as I said, these are peppy performances and at least half of the music is quite good.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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