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Nikos Skalkottas: Concerto

  • for violin and orchestra
  • Duration: 28’
  • Instrumentation details:
    2 2 2 3 - 2 2 2 1 - timp, perc - str
  • Composer: Nikos Skalkottas
  • Remarks: Study score available at Musikproduktion Höflich:

Work introduction

Nearly all of Nikos Skalkottas’ works were unpublished and, apart from a handful of compositions, unperformed during his lifetime. Posthumously, a few of his compositions (and individual movements of larger, multi-movement works) were published by Universal Edition in the 1950s, while others were made available later in the 1980s and 1990s by the American publisher Margun Music.
The Violin Concerto was one of those works neither performed nor published during Skalkottas’ lifetime, and the autograph sources remained in manuscript form and unedited. The first editorial work on the concerto started in the late 1950s, and the piece was first published by Universal Edition in 1964 – 15 years after Skalkottas’ death. Similar to the other early published works, it contains several copying and engraving errors, misreadings of the sources, a liberal amount of interpretative performance indications that are not Skalkottas’ own, and it lacks any critical commentary or explanation of the editorial changes, additions and emendations to the music.[1]

This new Critical Edition of the Violin Concerto, edited by Dr Eva Mantzourani, aims to rectify this state of affairs. It provides an authoritative performance text, based on meticulous study of all known sources and prepared in accordance with modern editorial and text-critical principles, which open new possibilities for performance, recording and further study of this remarkable piece.

Contextualisation of the Violin Concerto
Although Skalkottas was an accomplished violinist and a prolific composer of concertos, until the late 1930s he only wrote for the violin in chamber music works (including a short Concerto for Violin, Piano and Chamber Orchestra (1930). The Violin Concerto, a large-scale dodecaphonic work, belongs to a cluster of large-scale concertos written in the late 1930s. There are no surviving sketches or any other textual notes referring to the Violin Concerto, and its compositional history is unknown. Although the surviving autograph scores are undated, considering the version of the dodecaphonic technique that Skalkottas explores here, it seems likely that he composed it sometime in 1938, after the Second Piano Concerto and before the Third Concerto for Piano and Ten Wind Instruments (known as the Third Piano Concerto).
The Violin Concerto is an exciting work, full of contrasting colours and emotions, with dramatic outbursts interwoven among lyrical passages. The work, in three movements each based on a classical form, is an example of Skalkottas’s free dodecaphonic technique. This involves the use of several thematic twelve-note sets together with numerous unordered sets, and twelve-note melodies played just once. Within the small-scale phrase structure, coherence is achieved through motivic and thematic means, repetition of harmonic groups, rhythmic figures and articulation, rather than through the unifying power of a limited number of constantly reiterated twelve-note sets. At the large-scale structural level, Skalkottas employs cyclical procedures and the varied repetition of certain passages, together with en bloc transposition of entire sections, predominantly at the perfect fifth, to define the harmonic and formal structure of the movement. [2]

 With regard to the set and thematic structure, the entire piece is a large-scale sonata form, with the first movement functioning as the Exposition, the second movement the Development, and the third movement the Recapitulation.
Skalkottas’ compositional language is characterised by rhythmic vitality, and throughout the work the rhythmic drive is often breathless yet captivating. His exceptional orchestration skills are put to good use throughout, with the orchestral texture displaying an interplay of light and darkness, and the dialogue between the soloist and the orchestra always exhilarating. The melodic gestures fluctuate between lyrical passages and bold, demanding statements by the solo part in particular.

The first movement, Molto appassionato, is in sonata form with each phrase built on a new collection of pitch material, including twelve-note sets and their variations. It starts with an extended orchestral ritornello (Exposition I), built on 11 twelve-note sets and featuring two main themes. Within the first thematic group (built on eight different twelve-note sets), the main thematic line of the first theme, played by the first violins, enters with a wave-like melodic contour and a distinctive initial descending gesture; it is accompanied contrapuntally by the second violins playing a melody with a similar initial descending contour, while the cellos accompany with continuous syncopated harmonic thirds. The second thematic group is built on several new, thematic twelve-note sets and other pitch collections, different in each phrase. Four of the thematic sets support the second, lyrical theme, which is played in unison by the flutes and oboes. The solo violin exposition (Exposition II), is an expanded and varied repetition of the dodecaphonic and thematic material of the orchestral exposition. The Development section is short, yet energetic and brilliant. It is followed by the Recapitulation, which presents the thematic and harmonic material of the Exposition transposed en bloc at the perfect fifth. The movement ends with an open-ended gesture, as the short Coda – predominantly based on material from the first thematic group at its original tonal level – ends with a partial repetition of the transition, leaving the listener yearning for closure, which will only come in the third movement. 

The second movement, Andante spirito, is lyrical with a spirited feel. It is in ternary form and uses previously established dodecaphonic material and varied thematic sets, while the structural principles of the en bloc transposition of entire sections at the perfect fourth and perfect fifth, follow those employed in the first movement. The first lyrical passage leads to the contrasting middle section, while the final varied return of the opening structural gesture, transposed at the perfect fourth, leaves the movement open ended. 

The third movement, Allegro vivo vivacissimo, in reversed sonata form, is built on the 11 twelve-note sets of the first movement’s opening passage, but it progressively introduces new harmonic material. After an adventurous interplay between the soloist and the orchestra, the short Development section leads to the Recapitulation, which starts with the second theme and progressively moves to the first thematic material of the movement. The first thematic idea, abbreviated and initially transformed into a doloroso passage, finally appears and asserts itself in the Recapitulation. The feeling of yearning resolution, building up through the previous two movements, is eventually resolved here as the work draws to a close with a thrilling Coda.

[1] The earlier error-strewn edition was used for the first recorded performance of the piece, which took place in Hamburg on 14 May 1962. It was played by the NDR–Sinfonieorchester (Hamburg), conducted by Michael Gielen, with Tibor Varga playing the solo violin. Other early performances of the Violin Concerto include its ‘world premiere’, sometime in 1962 by the Orchestre de la Suisse-Romande (Geneva), conducted by George Barati, with Lorand Fenyves playing the solo violin, and the first UK performance, on 16 November 1963, by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Antal Dorati, with Lorand Fenyves again playing the solo violin part.

[2] A detailed explanation of the twelve-note structure of the Violin Concerto, can be found in Eva Mantzourani, The Life and Twelve-Note Music of Nikos Skalkottas (Ashgate: 2011 / Routledge: 2016).


World première

Hamburger Rundfunk , Hamburg (DE)
Michael Gielen
Main soloists:
Tibor Varga, vln

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