SKALKOTTAS: Violin Concerto (arr. Mantzourani). Concerto for Violin, Viola & Wind Orchestra (arr. Mantzourani) / George Zacharias, vln; Alexandros Koustas, vla; London Philharmonic Orch.; Martyn Brabbins, cond / Bis SACD-2554
Nikos Skalkottas was a strange sort of composer…well, perhaps not. A prize pupil of Schoenberg, he wrote some extraordinary serial pieces of great depth and complexity, which are the ones I generally like, but since he was a Greek composer who, thanks to the Nazis, fled back to his native country, he also wrote a great many conventional, tonal pieces using Greek themes as their basis. You don’t have to guess which part of his repertoire was the more popular, and to this day it is that side of him that is played in concert on those rare occasions when his music is programmed.
These two works for violin, the second also including a viola part, are clearly in his thornier style. In fact, Skalkottas included an analysis of these works in his Treatise on Orchestration, in which he explained his search for “transcendental sound,” particularly in his appreciation of what the wind instruments could do. According to the liner notes by violinist Zacharias:
Out of a total of 165 manuscript pages, the first 110 are devoted to the meticulous presentation and description of a variety of instruments at the “disposal of the modern orchestrator,” spanning from the piccolo to the harp. Most of these pages, however, concentrate solely on the woodwinds and brass and their ability to blend with the strings.
Slakkottas explicitly differentiates between the “arts of instrumentation and orchestration”; the term orchestration implies a simultaneous and coordinated performance of an orchestral ensemble – as is the case in the Violin Concerto – while instrumentation expresses a coordinated but distinctive individual production of sound by the wind instruments.
The end result in the solo violin concerto is very Schoenberg-like, perhaps even a bit starker and barer than Schoenberg’s music of that time. The opening of the first movement has no real introductory section; it jumps right into the middle of the music as if it had already been going on for a minute or two. There is little here to assist the resolutely tonal-oriented listener; the music is, in fact, far more stark than the Violin Concerto of Schoenberg’s friend and pupil, Alban Berg. In the midst of such a turbulent sea of knotty themes and knottier chords, there ar only two choices for the listener, to completely reject it and walk away or pay close attention to what is going on and at least try to follow Skalkottas’ train of musical thought. I chose the latter, and found that although this music is almost wholly cerebral and not in the least sensual or attractive, it is very tightly and logically written—sort of a super-complex musical equivalent to a drawing by Escher. The parallel is not randomly chosen. Just as Eshcer’s drawings are clever yet somehow strangely logical distortions of reality, so too Skalkottas’ Violin Concerto is a modern construct that has a strong inner logic though it does not fit in with conventional composition methods. Yet every single note in this outstanding work helps to buttress the foundation. Skalkottas took no chances in creating this piece; there are neither “holes” in the music that need filling in nor superfluous notes or passages. His writing here is extraordinarily economical. It is modern music reduced to its essential basics and not a jot more.
And the music is always morphing and changing. Little, if anything, is repeated at any given point. Indeed, this may be the purest and most consistent 12-tone concerto ever written. Insofar as the orchestration goes, I personally didn’t find it “transcendental” in the meditative sense so much as constantly varied and mostly very sparse, using just bits of the full orchestra to back up the soloist. You almost never hear the full orchestra playing together; at times it sounds like a concerto for violin and strings, at others like a concerto for violin and winds only. The brasses are sparsely used and, when they are, mostly for filling in chords; the only time the brass is in the foreground is a brief passage for the French horns in the second movement. Only once or twice do you hear the percussion, and even the basses are conspicuously absent most of the time. All of this gives the listener the impression that this concerto is “floating in the air.” Perhaps this is what Skalkottas meant by “transcendental” sound.
As I say, however, this is scarcely a concerto to please the masses. Melody and sensuality are conspicuously and, I would think, purposely absent, even when the orchestral plays a quirky atonal waltz in the third movement. Yet despite the virtual absence of anything “normal” to hang on to, Zacharias gives us a surprisingly impassioned performance of the solo part. showing that at least he could find a modicum of human feeling in a primarily mechanical musical construct. It’s a remarkable feat, really, but Skalkottas, who was also a violinist, saw this as a necessary component in his concerto when he wrote
the virtuoso player should shape his own idea; he should demonstrate a unique way of performance and inspiration, in comparison to older times…to achieve a vivid and flowing performance of these [compositions], [as a performer] I would also methodically study the composer, who has in turn been inspired.
Incidentally, the editions of these concertos made by Dr. Eva Mantzourani do not represent a re-orchestration or re-adaptation of the original scores, but rather were based on the new critical edition which “addresses several oversights of prior editions.”
Interestingly, the violin-viola concerto, written two years later, is just a shade more audience-friendly, at least in terms of rhythm. Here, the first movement in particular is quite jaunty, bouncing along almost like a Greek folk dance (or perhaps a German one—you decide). Perhaps because he was writing for two instruments and not one, Skalkottas also produced melodic lines that occasionally lean towards tonality, something that was absent in the Violin Concerto. This is particularly true when he writes for the viola alone; as an instrument whose sound lies between the violin and the cello, he apparently wanted t o complement its richer sound with somewhat less strict dodecaphonic musical development. TO give you a small idea of it, here’s the first page of the manuscript score in Skalkottas’ own hand:
As a result, this concerto has a less strict comparison to an Escher drawing. It combines intellect with a bit of sensuality and even a touch of fun, which leavens its impact on the listener a bit. Not that you’re going to hear any part of this work on your local classical FM radio station, just that I could envision this being programmed in concert at least once every few years whereas the Violin Concerto is one of those works that most orchestras and soloists would try to avoid like the plague because it’s completely non-commercial.
Perhaps the most surprising thing to me was that conductor Martyn Brabbins and the London Philharmonic fully enter into the spirit of this concerto as well as the soloists do. I say that because, as a rule, British musicians tend not to be able to relax and have fun with really serious music as well as some Germans and Scandinavians do, but somehow or other Brabbins and his forces really play in a very peppy manner, mirroring their soloists. Only in the second movement does the feeling become more serious, and it is here that Skalkottas’ orchestration leans more heavily on a strange combination of the winds and brasses to create an almost mechanical sound.
To recap, I found the Violin Concerto cerebral but extraordinarily constructed, the Violin-Viola Concerto well constructed but somewhat more appealing to an average listener. Both are very well played and recorded; the SACD sound allows you to hear every little detail and nuance in Skalkottas’ extremely interesting scores. In fact, the sound is so clear that you almost don’t even need to see the score. Kudos to everyone concerned with this project. These are outstanding performances and recordings of two outstanding works.
—© 2023 Lynn René Bayley
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 Courtesy of the IMSLP Petrucci Score Library, https://imslp.hk/files/imglnks/euimg/3/3d/IMSLP603569-PMLP971049-skalkottas_doubleconcerto_margun.pdf.
One thought on “Skalkottas’ Concerti for Violin”
I love how you unearth gems that your local FM classical station would never play. As I mentioned in the email to you a few days back, “so much music, so little time.” We should all be spending the remainder of our given time listening to great music and reading great books. JAC