36 Greek Dances
Overture for Orchestra The Return of Ulysses
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Recorded November 2001 and April 2002, BBC Studio One, Maida Vale, London
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: April 2003
CD No: BIS
CD-1333/1334 (2 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 27 minutes
BIS is to be heartily congratulated for its work on behalf of Nikos Skalkottas (1904-1949). Eight previous CD releases have made available an outstanding corpus of work from a composer whose posthumous success has been significant and wholly justified. An almost ’secret’ composer during his short lifetime (one of struggle), his ’day job’ was as an orchestral violinist. His great interest in his country’s indigenous music, and his studies with Schoenberg, are reflected in this wonderful new issue.
The 36 Greek Dances (3 sets of 12) have a natural exuberance and boldness that avoids any remit to commercial overlay – nothing to do with Anthony Quinn’s Zorba! This is authentic and sophisticated re-creation. Vigour, rhythmic stealth, melancholic expression and full-orchestra panoply re-conceive folk-ensemble sounds. Each of the 36 dances is a gem; each has a distinctive rhythmic and harmonic profile – an individual flavour. On an intellectual level one can marvel at the sheer sophistication and imagination with which Skalkottas authenticates the music for the concert hall, without denuding its roots; on a secular plane, one prizes the vibrant, exuberant and tender feelings encompassed, the earthy vigour and heartfelt melancholy, and the orchestral ’takes’ on native instruments – the stately power and rhythmic variations are staggering, so too the intensity therein.
Each dance conjures a different emotion, suggests a different landscape, the energy being developed from motivic and rhythmic cells. This is music of fire, freedom, national pride and ever-changing colours. There’s also an insinuating quality – the light-footed and melodically charming No.20 (Set 2/No.8) for example.
One’s full attention and time is demanded – rather more than a string of Greek dances, this very appealing music is analysed and sounded in a wholly personal way, at once true to its origins and definably representative of one of the most important ’finds’ in terms of obscure composers in recent times.
The Return of Ulysses dates from 1942 and is from the composer’s Schoenberg side. Connected to an unwritten opera, its 30-minute length doesn’t really make it the ’overture’ to such a venture; it’s more a symphonic poem. Not heard until 1969, when the LSO and Antal Doráti gave the belated premiere, one might describe the style as freely atonal, more expressive than Schoenberg’s ’system’ might be credited with and used here in a very personal way. Inevitably some Schoenberg-isms are to be heard, so too passages that remind of Berg – not for the first time with Skalkottas one hears an individual voice (the masterly Violin Concerto comes to mind – BIS-CD-904). The Return of Ulysses is a compelling piece that demands attention and further association.
The performances are superb, the BBCSO quick-change artists par excellence – the dynamics of the Greek Islands seems as second nature as does the unravelling of Ulysses, here made lucid and direct. The sound is superb too – majestically clear and imposing. Presentation is exemplary – detailed notes by the conductor embrace the music’s genesis and development with each dance afforded its own paragraph; there’s also a note on the complex problem of Skalkottas’s revisions (alternative versions of three dances are included on these CDs).
One of the records of the year!