Samaltanos Plays Skalkottas

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AwardSKALKOTTAS: Suite (violin-piano version arr. by Skalkottas).1 On the Beach.2 The Music.2 Once Upon a Time.2 The Return of Odysseus (arr. for two pianos by Skalkottas).3 12 Greek Dances.4 Sifneikos I.5 Ipirotikos I5 / Nikolaos Samaltanos, pno (except last 2 tracks); 1Nina Pissareva Zymbalist, vln; 2Angelica Cathariou, mezzo; 3Christophe Sirodeau, 5Tota Economos, pno; 4Little Symphony Orch. of San Francisco, cond. Gregory Millar / Melism MLSCD025

It’s actually rather amazing that a composer I had never heard of before I reviewed his Piano Concerto No. 3 in December 2019 has suddenly had a spate of recordings of his music suddenly gush forth in recent months. This latest incarnation is particularly interesting since it is comprised entirely of premiere recordings, not only of the violin-piano version of the Suite for Violin and Orchestra—which version includes the surviving violin-only part of the missing fifth movement—and the three songs, but also a rare 1957 stereo recording of his most popular work, the 12 Greek Dances, and the first-ever recording of any of his works, a 1949 aircheck of two pieces by Greek pianist Tota Economos from 1949, when the composer was still alive (1949 was the year of his untimely death).

The Suite of 1929 is up first, and a great modern piece it is. Violinist Zymbalist and pianist Samaltanos really dig into it and do a great job with it, but I wasn’t terribly happy about the over-reverberation on the instruments (as my regular readers know, one of the banes of my existence as a reviewer). The second movement, though using atonal harmony and rootless chords, is extremely lyrical, particularly in the violin part; had Skalkottas used more conventional harmony with some tonal resolution in the accompaniment, it might be a piece that would be played around the world—but we all know how committed most classical performances are to playing the SOS (Same Old Stuff) over and over and over again, so who knows. Since the piano part for the last movement has been lost, Zymbalist plays this as a violin solo, and here the atonal harmonies are indeed heard even in this solo part.

The first of the three songs from 1938-1946 is more tonal, being based more on popular and folk song models. Mezzo-soprano Angelica Cathariou has a nice tone but is too nasal in her singing, and by pushing the tone she sometimes creates an unpleasant effect. The second of these songs, The Music, sounded more modern but in the style of Kurt Weill rather than Schoenberg. Skalkottas was not all in on serial music and in fact composed in different styles to meet different musical needs. The third song is closer in feeling to Bartók.

Next up is the 2-piano reduction (made by the composer) of his overture The Return of Odysseus for large orchestra. This recording was made as far back as 26 years ago, in December 1994, although this is its first release. The music rambles softly through the opening section, atonal yet somehow pleasant to listen to, and in this recording the excess reverb is not present. The “overture” is unusual in that it divides itself into five sections, marked “Molto adagio,” “Allegro molto vivace,” “[Fuga]” (in brackets because it is not Skalkottas’ description), “[Allegro molto vivace]” and “Presto – Prestissimo.” Having never heard the orchestral version, I can only imagine what it would sound like. Surely, the fast-paced, almost hectic-sounding second section would have been played by strings and possibly woodwinds, but even in this reduction it makes a tremendous effect. Written in 1944-45, a time when Skalkottas was generally writing more audience-friendly music, it is considerably harsher in both melody and harmony than, for instance, his 12 Greek Dances which follow it. Another strange feature of this “overture” is its length; it lasts over 23 minutes, nearly the length of a symphony. The “Fuga” is fast, furious and very atonal. Despite the lack of reverberance, it seemed to me that the pianos were not as clearly recorded in their upper ranges; a bit of treble brightening would have been welcome.

Gregory MillarFollowing this is the first recording of the 12 Greek Dances, conducted by Gregory Millar (née Grigorios Manoussos). Millar was an interesting character. An operatic tenor and a violinist, Millar (1925-2002) was born in Saskatchewan, Alberta. After serving a stint in the Canadian army during World War II, he went back to college and organized the University of British Columbia’s first symphony orchestra. By his own admission, “I didn’t know anything about [conducting], I just got up and conducted.” He drew the attention of young Leonard Bernstein, however, who urged him to follow that line of the music business. Millar was assistant conductor at St. Louis for three seasons, then moved to the West Coast of the U.S. where he led opera performances and formed the San Francisco Little Symphony. In 1960 he moved to New York where he became one of Bernstein’s assistant conductors, making his 12 Greek Dances Fantasy LPdebut with a performance of the Schumann Third Symphony in the middle of a concert when Bernstein took ill. In 1961 he became music director of the Kalamazoo Symphony, a post he held for seven years (he was succeeded by Pierre Hetu in the fall of 1968). Judging from this one recording, he was indeed an excellent conductor. This is the finest performance of the 12 Greek Dances I’ve ever heard; the music has snap and crackle whereas other versions are soft and mushy. This recording was issued on LP by Fantasy Records in 1967, then by the Greek Collectors Society in 1967. This is the first release of the original stereo tapes. The sound is a little thin and shrill up top, however; a little judicious audio editing could have made it a bit less abrasive.

EconomosWe end our survey with the rarest of all Skalkottas recordings, his Sifneikos I and Ipirotikas I played by pianist Tota Economos, highly admired by the composer, from a French radio broadcast in 1949. Like Millar, Economos plays the composer’s music with more muscle and sparkle than many of today’s performers, and it’s wonderful to hear these performances. The sound is fairly clear and natural, if with rather more surface noise than I like.

This is clearly one of the most interesting and valuable of all the recent releases of Skalkottas’ music, one of this year’s best classical releases to date.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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