NIKOS SKALKOTTAS – The Third Quartet and Some

Greek Early Modern composer Nikos Skalkottas [1904–1949] wrote four string quartets. Wikipedia asserts ‘A member of the Second Viennese School, he drew his influences from both the classical repertoire and the Greek tradition’. Wiki also has some interesting material about his methods of composition, and reveals ‘his worklist is divided between atonal, twelve-tone and tonal works’.

The Third Quartet, from 1935, is in three movements and opens with a dramatic descending violin line, and soon, a similar ascending melody. When the ensemble joins, wafting atonal melodies paint an emotionally moving soundscape, one that I haven’t often heard in a 1930s work. A slightly frantic section gives way to a cornucopia of mysterious sounds, with no apparent relationships between them. This movement is very mild and doesn’t feature the often highly abstract nature of the above mentioned Second Viennese School (Schoenberg et al). Occasionally some dynamic passages are heard but a segue into a shrill violin grounds the music, allowing for more of those mysterious sounds. The end is quite dramatic.

The next, andante movement, features a lamenting violin, over a walking pizzicato cello before the cello moves into pizzicato, still walking but creating a change of atmosphere. Being drawn to abstraction, I find this mood very satisfying. A rise in the level of expression has all instruments contributing to this strange feeling – it sometimes seems sparse and busy at the same time. The violins are lyrical, in a modern way and move into sustained tones over a stilted cello motif. Now a section of lush writing allows the violins to be quite beautiful, albeit for a brief time. A dramatic passage has the violins at their most dissonant so far, with melodies emanating from different registers, leading to a heavy texture. There is no apparent structure in this movement and, as the end approaches, the music just drifts away.

The final, allegro movement is not particularly rhythmic. Intermittent violin flurries and cello interspersions develop into another formless section. A violin pizzicato duet moves slowly into an interesting harmonised passage, however the atonal flavour is retained. There is very little allegro to be heard, just the sound of unusual overlapping instrumental lines – again, seemingly formless. The cello leads the violins into a busy period, where the lines wrap around each other. A particularly dramatic phase concludes the work.

I am going to do something a little unusual myself, and discuss just the second movement of the Fourth Quartet – I can’t resist. From 1940 and running for just over 15 minutes, I believe it could stand on its merits as a one movement piece. On the CD, this track has been indexed into eight segments, beginning with an andante, moving through six segments titled Variations, and a final Coda. I won’t delineate the segments.

The movement opens in a style similar to the Third Quartet, although the start shows an absence of the tension that was previously heard. A wonderful atonal but harmonised section moves into a sense of a tempo for the first time in this discussion. The melodies and general atmosphere here are again, wonderful. A dramatic segment ensues, with rich, deep tones from all instruments and not a little glissando, particularly from two shrill violins.

A new segment reveals a probing, nearly solo violin with occasional dirge-like interjections from the ensemble. Now a brief section in tempo leads to some drama, before moving into a lilting, but rhythmic passage, which becomes very serious in nature. A new segment brings with it much activity, again slightly entropic, as the ensemble conjure up a most chaotic sound.

Long, sustained, mysterious lines edge forward in a new segment – the abstraction here is superb – this is marvellous writing. A semblance of a pulse develops but a return to shrill violins leads to further abstraction. An agitated passage now unfolds, with a hint of Shostakovich to be heard here.

Another moment of lush, sustained tones unfolds and this feeling slowly edges forward with some fascinating sounds. This turns out to be the Coda and a quiet passage for two violins leads to a fade.

I think this is a wonderful piece of music that I find to be most intangible yet containing great beauty. Just in passing, I didn’t notice evidence of a Greek influence in any of these movements – perhaps they eluded me.

The review CD, titled String Quartets Nos. 3 & 4, on the BIS label and performed by the New Hellenic Quartet is available from Amazon UK and as Used and New or via MP3 download from Amazon US.

This disc can be heard on Spotify.

Listenability: Fascinating Early Modern, non-confronting string quartets.


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