Skalkottas: Concerto for Two Violins; Oboe Quartet

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COMPOSERS: Skalkottas
LABELS: BIS
WORKS: Concerto for Two Violins; Oboe Quartet
PERFORMER: Eiichi Chijiiwa, Nina Zymbalist (violins), Alexei Ogrintchouk (oboe), Eric Aubier (trumpet), Marc Trenel (bassoon), Nikolaos Samaltanos, Christophe Sirodeau (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: CD-1244
BIS’s amazing Skalkottas series has been a case of Greeks bearing gifts that one can only receive with gratitude. And so it is with this fascinating disc. Skalkottas composed his last large-scale concerto, for two violins, in 1944-5 but never got round to orchestrating it before his death in 1949. It’s performed here with the short score played as a piano duet, and if the result is inevitably monochrome, the musical substance scintillates and enthralls. Apparently the work marked a new departure in Skalkottas’s orientation, not to traditional Greek folk music but to the hybrid popular music known as rembetiko: the slow movement consists of a superb set of variations on a rembetiko theme. Certainly this tranced, languorous, Szymanowskian music is like nothing else in Skalkottas, ecstatic and intensely atmospheric.

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The wind-instrument pieces seem to have been conceived as performable in a single unfolding sequence, ranging from brilliant dance-stylisations (the ensemble works), through the virtuosic little Concertinos for oboe and trumpet, to the weighty bravura of the big Sonata concertante for bassoon. This is serialism with a very humane and often smiling face. The performances? Heroic and dedicated certainly, and with complex, little-known music one is grateful for anything that intelligently articulates the substance, as these players demonstrably do. Sometimes, however, one wonders if the occasional passages of neo-classical chuggery are entirely the composer’s fault, and whether additional rehearsal would have resulted in yet more incisive characterisation of his inherently convoluted yet brilliant thought. A joy, nonetheless. Calum MacDonald