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CD Review

Alexander Scriabin

Pierian 18

The Composer as Pianist

The Welte Mignon Piano Rolls
  • Preludes, Op. 11 #1,2 1
  • Poeme, Op. 32 #1 1
  • Etude, Op. 8 #12 1
  • Désir, Op. 57 #1 1
  • Prelude, Op. 22 #1 1
  • Mazurka, Op. 40 #2 1
  • Preludes, Op. 11 #13,14 1
  • Nocturne for the Left Hand, Op. 9 #2 2
  • Sonate Fantasie, Op. 19 #2, 1st Movement 3
  • Mazurka, Op. 40 #2 4
  • Preludes, Op. 11 #3-6 5
  • Album Leaf, Op. 45 #1 5
  • Etude, Op. 2 #1 5
  • Desir, Op. 57 #1 6
  • Kresse dansée, Op. 57 #2 6
  • Enigme, Op. 52 #2 6
  • Poeme, Op. 32 #1 6
  • Nocturne for the Left Hand, Op. 9 #2 7
1 Alexander Scriabin, piano (rec. Moscow 1910)
2 Josef Lhévinne, piano (rec. Freiburg 1906)
3 Constantine Igumnoff, piano (rec. Moscow 1910)
4 Alexander Goldenweiser, piano (rec. Moscow 1910)
5 Austin Conradi, piano (rec. New York 1921-22)
6 Leff Pouishnoff, piano (rec. New York 1926)
7 Magdeleine Brard, piano (rec. New York 1925)
Pierian 18 50:33
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I have a long-deleted Russian Season disc of Alexander Scriabin's piano music played by Samuel Feinberg, Vladimir Sofronitsky, Heinrich Neuhaus, Alexander Goldenweiser and Scriabin himself. Given the commanding line-up of artists, it is one of my most treasured recordings and has the complete taste of authenticity. Of course, the sound can be problematic, but to listen to these Russian titans of the keyboard is a privilege as well as a compelling listening experience.

When playing a disc such as The Russian Season one, I sometimes wonder how the early 20th century pianists would sound with up-to-date sonics. This is where the Welte-Mignon digital recording system enters the picture, for it represents the closest that we can get to hearing these historical performances in modern sound. Introduced in 1904, the Welte-Mignon digital process allows us to hear an exceptional level of detail without any trace of sound distortion. To this reviewer, the results are amazing in that a performance recorded in the early 1900's can sound as if it is being played this very day just a few feet away.

It all sounds too good to be true, and the fact is that the Welte-Mignon system is not perfect. Critics claim that this system does not accurately reproduce performances; my particular reservation is that it tends to smooth-out the musical edges and contours, and a prime example comes from a comparison of the Scriabin performances on the Russian Season and Pierian discs. Eight of the nine pieces on the Pierian are also on the Russian Season, and Scriabin's readings are more sharply etched on the latter. So, there is a trade-off that needs to be considered by prospective buyers.

Having said the above, the greatest difference between historical and piano roll recordings is one of orientation. With the Russian Season disc, the listener is transported back to Scriabin's era with all its sonic limitations; the Pierian disc transports Scriabin to the current-day listener's sound world. Frankly, I consider both orientations revelatory and essential for Scriabin enthusiasts.

Of course, the two discs give us much insight as to how Scriabin played his own music and why deviating significantly from his recorded examples diminishes his compositions. As wonderful as it is to hear Richter or Sofronitsky play Scriabin, there is a tremendous 'rush' when listening to the composer perform his own music: the intensity of his melancholy, the under-currents of tension that make the ensuing emotional outbursts logical and compelling, the prevalent cross-rhythms, and the playfulness of his interpretations.

Although the performers on the Pierian disc are not uniformly of the star-studded variety found on the Russian Season disc, but I can assure readers that each one is a superb advocate for Scriabin's music. The legendary Josef Lehevinne needs no introduction, and his performance of the Nocturne for the Left Hand is a stunning example of lush romanticism. The Nocturne is also played by Magdeleine Brard who gained entry to the Paris Conservatory in 1914 at the tender age of eleven; she became Alfred Cortot's favorite student and toured the United States with the Orchestra of the Paris Conservatory in 1919. Her reading of the Nocturne largely eschews Lhévinne's romantic approach for a more powerful presentation with very demonstrative accenting.

Born in 1873, Constantine Igumnoff studied under Taneyev, Arensky, and Ippolitov-Ivanov at the Moscow Conservatory. Although best known as a professor at the Conservatory for almost 50 years, his playing of 1st Movement of the Sonate Fantasie reveals a deep connection for Scriabin's volatile nature, exquisite lyricism, and powerful cross-rhythms. This is definitely a performance not to be missed.

Alexander Goldenweiser's artistry is represented by his performance of Scriabin's Mazurka, Op. 40/2 that is also played by the composer. Goldenweiser was an important figure in promoting the Russian school of piano playing, being a professor and the eventual director of the Moscow Conservatory for many years. A comparison of his Mazurka performance with that of Scriabin's is quite illuminating. Scriabin is quick, impetuous, and very playful, while Goldenweiser adopts a slower and more stately presentation. Although I have to give the nod to Scriabin, the Goldenweiser account has a cosmopolitan and mature nature that is alluring and glows with confidence.

Leff Pouishnoff, born into an aristocratic Russian family, was an exceptional Scriabinist. He graduated in 1910 from the Petrograd Conservatory after studying with Rimsky-Korsakov, Glazunov, and Liadov. His first concert tour was as a partner for Leopold Auer, and highly successful tours in London and the United States followed in the 1920's. Of his four piano rolls on the disc, the Poeme and Desir compare quite well with Scriabin's own performances. Actually, they are similar except that Scriabin is a little more playful and mysterious. Most important, both pianists splendidly bring out the harmonic adventure of the pieces.

Aside from the Scriabin piano rolls, it is the playing of Austin Conradi that I most treasure on the disc. An American, he was raised and lived most of his life in Baltimore, teaching at the Peabody Institute. This is my first acquaintance with Conradi's playing, and I am amazed with his affinity for Scriabin's sound world. The performances are steeped in rapture and sensuality, and the grief he conveys in the Prelude, Op. 11/4 and the Op. 2 Etude is overwhelming. As for determination, his granite strength in the Prelude, Op. 11/6 bespeaks a mighty edifice as well as primitive abandon.

Don's Conclusions: The non-profit Pierian label has given us an enlightening and, dare I say, magical recording that every Scriabin enthusiast needs to have. Although it can be used as a reference and historical document, the best thing to do with this disc is simply listen to the wonderful music in utterly compelling performances. Personally, I consider myself most fortunate to own both the Pierian and Russian Season discs, feeling that I have knocked on the doors of Heaven and gained entry. Without doubt, the Pierian disc has been the most rewarding I have encountered this year.

Copyright © 2005/2006, Don Satz

Trumpet