Recording Nikos Skalkottas

During this centennial anniversary of composer Nikos Skalkottas’s birth, the ongoing activity marking the occasion includes new recordings and releases as well as discoveries of works such as the lost ballet «The Gnomes.» Notably, one release, «Piano Concerto No. 3 and The Gnomes (ballet),» performed by the Caput Ensemble and pianist Geoffrey Douglas Madge with conductor Nikos Christodoulou at the helm, has figured as one of Germany’s best albums this year. It was released on the Scandinavian label BIS as the latest in a series dedicated to Skalkottas, all directed by Christodoulou. The world-renowned conductor has already recorded the majority of orchestral works by Skalkottas with European orchestras. To date, Christodoulou has released seven critically acclaimed Skalkottas albums, none previously recorded. One of these, a splendid double album featuring the prestigious BBC Symphony Orchestra on «36 Greek Dances» and «The Return of Odysseus,» was enthusiastically received on the international circuit. It made 2003’s «best albums of the year» lists in four major markets, Germany, France, the UK and the USA. In an interview with Kathimerini, Christodoulou, discussed his Skalkottas-related recording activity. The Skalkottas discography was the first coordinated effort at taking Greek classical music to the international market. Foreign music magazine reviews have enthusiastically received your projects. Comparisons have been made between Skalkottas and Bartok, Prokofiev and others, while certain works are considered superior to respective efforts by Schoenberg, the mentor. What, then, is Skalkottas’s position today in the international music circuit? Skalkottas is for Greece what Bartok is for Hungary, Sibelius for Finland, or Britten for the UK. His reputation abroad emerged right after his death. Skalkottas is a very significant contemporary musical figure. Just think that a Penguin publication on 20th century music devotes an entire chapter to Skalkottas. But the lack of album releases has severely hampered accessibility to his work. Album releases of symphonies and chamber music is a basic factor behind spreading the music. Important initiatives have begun abroad. In Greece, the level of indifference worsened after his death even though, as a cultural entity, his work can be equated with the wonders of Greek antiquity. An organized academic archive, preservation of scores, research, critical publications and events, as well as international exposure of our national composer, are all needed. So, then, what pioneering aspect did Skalkottas introduce to music? In 1954, Hans Keller described Skalkottas as the first genuinely great composer of 12-tone structures. Yet, what is almost completely unique [about Skalkottas] is the stylistic range of his work, which examines all the contemporary trends – atonality, 12-tone structure, advanced tonality, neoclassicism, and systematic usage of folk music elements. Skalkottas combines the avant-garde with tradition, as well as national and European dimensions. His work’s range is prophetic for today’s musical trends. In Greece, even though some of his music is very well known through film and television, and was even used by a political party for a musical slogan, his body of work remains mostly unknown and most works have not been published. How did you discover «The Gnomes,» the lost ballet? While searching for the lost first line of the superb ballet «Death and the Maiden,» I looked through the Koula Pratsika [Greek choreographer, 1899-1984] archive thanks to the advice of the Athens University professor Rena Lountzaki. There, I found an anonymous, clearly written score, «The Gnomes,» a 1939 ballet for Pratsika, which was considered lost following his death. The Benaki Museum, where the archive is now located, provided us with a copy of the [ballet’s] score. Skalkottas wrote superb ballets and collaborated with all of Greece’s leading figures in the field. What does your new recording with the BBC Symphony Orchestra for the next album contain? We recorded significant works by Skalkottas such as the «Piano Concerto No. 2» with Geoffrey Madge as the soloist, as well as the unknown, until today, «Theme With Variations.» That was the last work Skalkottas managed to write. His sudden death interrupted its orchestration’s completion. Fortunately, the composition’s complete score, without orchestration, survives, as does four-fifths of the work arranged by Skalkottas. I added to that and the work was performed for the very first time at the BBC studios. How would you describe «Piano Concerto No. 3» and «The Gnomes»? They’re completely different works. The third concerto is one of Skalkottas’s most captivating atonal works – unusually long and dexterous. Three pianists were needed to share its three parts at its premiere in London in 1969. Geoffrey Madge was the first to play the work in its entirety, in 1985, and has become attached to it. Despite its length, it has a small 10-member winds section. «The Gnomes» was written for a small ensemble. From a technical perspective, how challenging are Skalkottas’s works for musicians? Very much, and that is also valid for his tonal works. Works such as «The Return of Odysseus» are among the repertoire’s most difficult. Although this question is, perhaps, rhetorical, considering the unsatisfactory quality level, why don’t foreign record companies record Greek orchestras? I hope this occurs some day. Until now, Greece has suffered from a lack of infrastructure. Please allow a retrospective synopsis of orchestras [in Greece]. When Dimitris Mitropoulos was at the helm, orchestras experienced continual improvement. Once they were institutionalized during the occupation, publicly run Greek orchestras started to turn into bureaucratic establishments and began diverging from European standards. One of the basic consequences has been their non-existent recording activity. Today, however, I believe that much more can be accomplished on the basis of strategy and vision. What’s the main impression European orchestras have made on you during recordings? The absolute professionalism and high standard. You know, only through professionalism can one love this profession and the collaboration, overcome difficulties, transfer the joy of creativity and serve the works correctly.

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