Outside his native Greece, the music of Nikos Skalkottas still remains little known. In the decades following his death in 1949, at the age of 45, it seemed as if Skalkottas might eventually come to be seen as one of the more significant of Schoenberg’s pupils; the distinguished musicologist Hans Keller even hailed him as one of the four “great Ss” of 20th-century music, alongside Stravinsky, Shostakovich and Schoenberg. But that recognition has never materialised. In western Europe performances of his major works are as rare as ever and some parts of his output remain little explored, with the result that this is the first ever recording of the Concerto for Violin, Viola and Wind.
Both it and the Violin Concerto belong to the most productive phase of Skalkottas’s composing career, the 10 years or so after he returned to Greece when the Nazis took power in Germany. During that time he developed his own, idiosyncratic version of Schoenberg’s 12-note method, a composing technique that owed a lot to his early career as a violinist, and it’s heard to best effect in the violin concerto composed in 1938. It’s a tough, three-movement work lasting half an hour and tracing out a sonata structure; the musical language is clearly indebted to Schoenberg, and occasionally to Berg’s violin concerto too, but the textures seem denser, the orchestral writing busier, with an intensity that seems distinctively personal.
The violin soloist is George Zacharias, whose belief in this hugely demanding music runs through every bar of his performance with Martyn Brabbins and the London Philharmonic. Zacharias is also responsible for the performing edition of the Concerto for Violin and Viola in which he’s partnered by Alexandros Koustas. Though it was composed only a couple of years after the violin work, it’s stylistically very different – abrasive, distinctly neoclassical, and not far from the worlds of Stravinsky and Hindemith at times. Certainly hearing the two concertos in succession is bewildering; the sense you get of Skalkottas’s musical personality from the violin work is then confounded by the double concerto, suggesting that there’s some way to go before we get a fully rounded sense of his achievement as a composer.
This week’s other pick
Boris Giltburg completes his survey of the Rachmaninov piano concertos for Naxos with the First and Fourth Concertos, along with the Paganini Rhapsody. As in the previous instalments of this cycle, the performances are immaculate. Giltburg has a fiercely impressive technique, which allows him to glitter and dash his way spectacularly through the First Concerto, with the rather brittle support of the Brussels Philharmonic conducted by Vassily Sinaisky. That approach suits the Fourth and the Rhapsody rather less convincingly, though, where he can seem relentless and even heavy handed, keeping the expressiveness of the music firmly constrained.