Ballet Music for Piano:
The Land and the Sea of Greece [Ballet Suite]
Island Images [Ballet Suite]
The Maiden and Death [Ballet Suite]
Procession to Acheron
Echo (Little Dance Piece)
Lorenda Ramou (piano)
Recorded in October 2005 in Västerås Concert Hall, Sweden
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: December 2006
CD No: BIS
Duration: 63 minutes
BIS’s project to record the complete output of Nikos Skalkottas (1904-1949) has featured 16 releases to disc (a discography is included with this release). Much worthwhile music has been made available for the first time, confirming the Greek composer’s significance to be that which the late Hans Keller claimed half a century ago. If this latest instalment is not among the most essential, this is not wholly on account of quality. Much of it was written for the ballet schools that played a major part in the cultural life of Athens – Skalkottas employing his most straightforward musical language in piano writing that, if not always subtle, is rarely less than effective.
Collectors following this series will find that the suite The Land and the Sea of Greece (1948) not at all unfamiliar: its first four movements were orchestrated as Four Images, with the other two sections being incorporated into the large-scale ballet The Sea. A robust depiction of ‘The Harvest’ passes into a more pensive evocation of ‘The Sowing’, then the purposeful rhythmic energy of ‘The Vintage’. The more illustrative manner of ‘The Grape Stomping’ is extended to the near-programmatic immediacy of ‘The Trawler’, before ‘Dance of the Waves’ rounds off the suite in scintillating fashion.
Shorter in duration, Island Images (1943) is more overtly pianistic and could enjoy popularity. An impressionistic depiction of ‘The Trawler’ is followed by the rhythmically incisive ‘Building of the Fishing Boat’, then the textural subtlety of ‘Sea Waves’, before the highly balletic ‘Launching the Fishing Boat’. A pungent ‘Greek Dance’ is followed by ‘Sunday in Church’, whose solemnity-cum-energy closes the suite in an effective manner.
Most significant is the suite from the ballet The Maiden and Death (1938) – missing in its orchestral guise until the reconstruction of the second (1947) version in 1998, at which time the original ‘good versus evil’ scenario was recovered (a track-by-track synopsis is included here). After an ominous Moderato and toccata-like Allegro recalling Prokofiev comes a simmering Andantino, whose waltz-time contours and folk-inflected melodies place it on the cusp of Skalkottas’s ‘art’ and ‘popular’ music, and make it an ideal way into his mature idiom. A syncopated Vivo precedes a more restrained Allegro, before the delicate tonal half-lights of a Lentement opens-out the piece’s expressive range. The suite ends with a Moderato, moving from elegant restraint to end with a brief flourish.
Two brief items, the evocative (and oddly Ravelian) Procession to Acheron (c.1942) and limpidly elegant Echo (c.1943), conclude a disc that will be gratefully received by Skalkottas’s admirers, and which should be investigated by pianists keen to add distinctive and accessible music to their repertoire.
Lorenda Ramou’s playing is unfailingly attentive to the nuances the composer was able to instil even in such essentially ‘functional’ music, and the sound captures the sonority of her Steinway D with the naturalness expected from BIS. Detailed and informative notes by Yannis Samprovalakis, who edited the scores for this recording, enhance a welcome release.