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CD Review

Alexander Scriabin

The Complete Works

  • Waltz in F minor, Op. 1 1
  • Etude in C Sharp minor, Op. 2 #1 2
  • Prelude in B Major, Op. 2 #2 1
  • Impromptu "a la Mazur", Op. 2 #3 1
  • 10 Mazurkas, Op. 3 3
  • Allegro appassionato, Op. 4 1
  • 2 Nocturnes, Op. 5 3
  • Piano Sonata #1 in F minor, Op. 6 2
  • 2 Impromptus "a la Mazur", Op. 7 3
  • 12 Etudes For Piano, Op. 8 3
  • Etude For Piano, Op. 8 #12 - alt. version (WoO 22) 1
  • Prelude & Nocturne for the Left Hand, Op. 9 1
  • 2 Impromptus, Op. 10 3
  • 24 Preludes for piano, Op. 11 3
  • 2 Impromptus, Op. 12 1
  • 6 Preludes, Op. 13 3
  • 2 Impromptus, Op. 14 1
  • 5 Preludes, Op. 15 3
  • 5 Preludes, Op. 16 3
  • 7 Preludes, Op. 17 3
  • Allegro de Concert, Op. 18 1
  • Piano Sonata #2 In G Sharp minor "Sonata Fantasy", Op. 19 4
  • Polonaise, Op. 21 1
  • 4 Preludes, Op. 22 2
  • Piano Sonata #3 in F Sharp minor, Op. 23 2
  • 9 Mazurkas, Op. 25 3
  • 2 Preludes, Op. 27 3
  • Fantasy in B minor, Op. 28 5
  • Piano Sonata #4 in F Sharp Major, Op. 30 2
  • 4 Preludes, Op. 31 3
  • 2 Poèmes, Op. 32 2
  • 4 Preludes, Op. 33 3
  • Poème tragique, Op. 34 6
  • 3 Preludes, Op. 35 3
  • Poème satanique, Op. 36 1
  • 4 Preludes, Op. 37 3
  • Waltz #4, Op. 38 7
  • 4 Preludes, Op. 39 3
  • 2 Mazurkas, Op. 40 3
  • Poème, Op. 41 1
  • 8 Etudes, Op. 42 2
  • 2 Poèmes, Op. 44 6
  • Trois Morceaux, Op. 45 2
  • Scherzo, Op. 46 1
  • Quasi Waltz, Op. 47 2
  • 4 Preludes, Op. 48 3
  • Morceaux "Etude" in E Flat Major, Op. 49 #1 1
  • Morceaux "Prelude" in F Major, Op. 49 #2 3
  • Morceaux "Reverie" in C Major, Op. 49 #3 8
  • Four Pieces, Op. 51 2
  • 3 Pieces, Op. 52 2
  • Piano Sonata #5 in F Sharp Major, Op. 53 5
  • Quatre Morceaux, Op. 56 2
  • 2 Pieces, Op. 57 2
  • Feuillet d'album, Op. 58 2
  • Poème, Op. 59 #1 1
  • Prélude, Op. 59 #2 3
  • Poème-Nocturne, Op. 61 5
  • Piano Sonata #6, Op. 62 2
  • 2 Poèmes, Op. 63 2
  • Piano Sonata #7 ("White Mass"), Op. 64 2
  • Three Etudes, Op. 65 1
  • Piano Sonata #8, Op. 66 2
  • 2 Preludes, Op. 67 3
  • Piano Sonata #9, Op. 68 "Black Mass" 9
  • 2 Poèmes, Op. 69 2
  • Piano Sonata #10, Op. 70 2
  • Two Poèmes, Op. 71 2
  • Vers la flamme, Op. 72 2
  • 2 Danses, Op. 73 5
  • 5 Preludes, Op. 74 2
  • Canon in D minor, WoO 1 8
  • Romance in F Sharp Major, WoO 2 1,11
  • Nocturne in A Flat, WoO 3 1
  • Scherzo in E Flat, WoO 4 1
  • Scherzo in A Flat, WoO 5 1
  • Sonata-Fantasy in G Sharp minor, WoO 6 10
  • Valse in G Sharp minor, WoO 7 1
  • Valse in D Flat Major, WoO 8 1
  • Variations in F minor on a Theme by Mlle Egoroff, WoO 9 1
  • Fugue in F minor, WoO 12 1
  • Fugue in F minor, WoO 13 1
  • Makurka in B minor, WoO 14 1
  • Mazurka in B minor, WoO 15 1
  • Mazurka in F Major, WoO 16 1
  • Feuillet d'Album in A Flat Major "Monighetti", WoO 17 8
  • Fantasy in A minor, WoO 18 2,12
  • Sonata in E Flat minor, WoO 19 10
  • Fugue in E minor, WoO 20 1
  • Romance in A minor, WoO 21 1,13
  • Feuillet d'album in F Sharp Major, WoO 25 1
  • Klavierstücke in B Flat minor, Anh 16 1
  • Variations on a Russian Folk Song 22
  • Andante for Strings, Anh. 20 22
  • Scherzo for Strings, Anh. 18 22
  • Symphonic Poem in D minor, WoO 24 24
  • Piano Concerto in F Sharp minor, Op. 20 2,25
  • Rêverie, Op. 24 28
  • Symphony #1 in E, Op. 26 26,27
  • Symphony #2 in C minor, Op. 29 29
  • Symphony #3 in C minor "Le Poème Divin", Op. 43 28
  • Piece "Poème ailé - Vivo" (Nuances #4), Op. 51 14,27
  • Piece "Poème languide - pas vite" (Nuances #1), Op. 52 #3 14,27
  • Le Poème de l'Extase, Op. 54 30
  • Piece "Désir - Con delicatezza" (Nuances #5), Op. 57 #1 14,27
  • Piece "Caresse dansée - Avec enchantement" (Nuances #6), Op. 57 #2 14,27
  • Feuillet d'album "Con delicatezza" (Nuances #3), Op. 58 14,27
  • Piece "Poème - Allegretto" (Nuances #2), Op. 59 #1 14,27
  • Piece "Prélude - Sauvage belliqueux" (Nuances #11), Op. 59 #214,27
  • Promethée - Le Poème du Feu, Op. 60 20,30
  • Poème-Nocturne, Op. 61 14,27
  • Poème "Masque - Allegretto" (Nuances #12), Op. 63 #1 14,27
  • Poème "Etrangeté - Gracieux, délicat" (Nuances #13), Op. 63 #2 - 14,27
  • Etude "Allegro Fantastico", (Nuances #7) Op. 65 #1 14,27
  • Etude "Molto Vivace" (Nuances #14), Op. 65 #3 14,27
  • Avec un grace capricieuse (Nuances #8) 14,27
  • Poème "Fantastique" (Nuances #10), Op. 71 #114,27
  • Prelude "Fier, belliqueux" (Nuances #9), Op. 74 #5 14,27
  • Preparation for the Final Mystery 21,31,27
  • Etude in C Sharp minor, Op. 2 #1 15
  • Etude In D Sharp minor For Piano, Op. 8 #12 15
  • Prelude in D Major, Op. 11 #5 16
  • Vers la flamme, Op. 72 5
  • Poème in F Sharp, Op. 32 #1 17
  • 8 Etudes, Op. 42 #5 in C Sharp minor 18
  • Four Pieces, Op. 51 18
  • Mazurka in E Major, Op. 3 #4 7
  • Mazurka in C Sharp minor, Op. 3 #6 7
  • Mazurka in G Sharp minor, Op. 3 #9 7
  • Piano Sonata #2 In G Sharp minor "Sonata Fantasy", Op. 19 19
1 Valentina Lisitsa, piano
2 Vladimir Ashkenazy, piano
3 Gordon Fergus-Thompson, piano
4 Ivo Pogorelich, piano
5 Sviatoslav Richter, piano
6 Jean Louis Steuerman, piano
7 Benjamin Grosvenor, piano
8 Anna Gourari, piano
9 Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano
10 Roberto Szidon, piano
11 Anush Hovhannisyan, piano
12 Vovka Ashkenazy, piano
13 Richard Watkins, piano
14 Alexander Ghindin, piano
15 Vladimir Horowitz, piano
16 Shura Cherkassky, piano
17 Mikhail Pletnev, piano
18 Yevgeny Kissin, piano
19 Daniil Trifonov, piano
20 Alexander Toradze, piano
21 Alexander Lubimov, piano
22 Kuss Quartet
23 Hamburg Strings/Anna Preyss-Bator
24 Moscow Symphony Orchestra/Igor Golovschin
25 London Philharmonic Orchestra/Lorin Maazel
26 Rundfunkchor Berlin
27 Deutsches Sinfonie-Orchester, Berlin/Vladimir Ashkenazy
28 Radio-Symphonie-Orchester Berlin/Vladimir Ashkenazy
29 Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra/Eliahu Inbal
30 Kirov Orchestra, St Petersburg, Valery Gergiev
31 St.Petersburg Chamber Choir Decca 4788168 18CDs
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This year (2015) marks the centenary of Scriabin's death (at just 43; he was born in Moscow in 1872). He remains an enigmatic composer writing in a largely romantic style at a time when much music around him was becoming "cleaner", "reduced", more "severe". Indeed, the influence of Chopin is evident in much of the piano music on these 18 CDs. Listen to the 16th Prelude (Opus 11) [CD.3 tr.20], for instance, to be strongly reminded of the earlier composer's B flat minor (second) piano sonata. Nor is Liszt far away… the energy of the Fourth Piano Sonata, Opus 30 [CD.5 tr.s 13-14] could almost be all that earlier composer's!

It's something of a gamble for the listener to invest in a cycle or – as here – a set of "complete" works. For barely the (street) cost of three full-price CDs Decca has (re)grouped recordings by a total of 40 pianists/quartets/orchestras/singers/choirs/organists and conductors who perform all of Scriabin's works. It claims to be the First Complete Edition; and includes no fewer than 64 items previously unrecorded.

This is a splendid set of consistently high standard; it will go a long way towards providing those partially familiar with the composer's output with greater insight. Those vaguely aware, perhaps, of only one or two of the symphonic works will surely be glad that they looked into Scriabin's substantial œuvre more closely. Anyone dipping in almost at random could well become addicted. In other words, this is a set to be welcomed. At such a reasonable price, you can hardly go wrong.

The recordings on these CDs come from Decca's own catalog (and those of ASV, Deutsche Grammophone, HNH, Hamburg Strings, Sanctuary and Universal) and date from between as long ago as 1963 (Richter's Piano Sonata #5 in F sharp major, Opus 53 [CD.6 tr.43]) and 2015. So there can be little attempt at creating any kind of unity or "house style" for the releases. This is no bad thing. The individuality of the various performers' approaches is what matters in a repertoire where so many recordings already exist. The main requirement is surely that every performer be sympathetic to Scriabin's at times idiosyncratic styles. And they all are. The impression you get is that the performers – in their own different ways – have all watched in moderate awe over his shoulder as Scriabin has just finished writing. There's no out-and-out adulation, even at the mystical flaring and heart-pouring later symphonies. But there's due admiration for Scriabin's originality and musical diction: a happy blend of inspiration and rigor.

The 18 disk set is divided into works for piano solo (CDs 1-9), chamber (on CD 10) and orchestra (CDs 10-18). The most important solo piano works are the ten sonatas, which are spread across various of those first nine CDs. And it's not only Lisitsa whose playing is outstanding (listen to some of the fugal gems on the ninth CD for what may be a completely new side of Scriabin to you). Ashkenazy electrifies too, in the seventh, "White Mass" [CD.7, tr.14], for instance. Richter's playing of the fifth [CD.6, tr.43] has a wonderful blend of sensitivity and force.

There are many less celebrated piano works too, though, which generally fall outside the standard repertoire yet are very well worth getting to know. Again, it's the high caliber of the playing that contributes to this. For example the two Impromptus Opus 7 [CD.2 tr.s 5,6] are played with a heady languorousness yet a precision by Gordon Fergus-Thompson, who also takes a loving yet penetrating approach to the other works for which he's responsible – notably the many Preludes and Ètudes. It would have been easy to ape Chopin's romanticism at the expense of trenchancy. He goes satisfyingly further.

The one misconception that you won't come away with after listening to almost ten hours of Scriabin's magical music for solo piano is that it constitutes a directionless, amorphous impression of intangible romanticism. Rather, the dozen expert pianists who explore it convey originality, a decisive purpose blended intelligently with sensitivity and self-awareness; and a real command by the composer of development and pianistic purpose.

Scriabin – for all his mysticism and application of synesthetic techniques, not to mention his symbolism and anomalous position in the panoply of Russian composers, indeed his gentle transition away from tonality – remains an influential figure who inspires as much by his discipline as his unconventionality. Yet movement after movement matches and even marries Scriabin's own potentially wayward and hothouse idiom with a complete awareness of the musical trends in pianistic exactitude and precision that were being advanced during Scriabin's lifetime by the likes of Stravinsky, Webern and even Bartók. In their own highly accomplished ways Lisitsa, Ashkenazy, Fergus-Thompson, Pogorelich, Richter, Grosvenor, and Aimard in particular reflect and enhance such a dual richness – through insight and discipline in equal measure, for both are necessary. Aimard's comprehensive yet stringently exploratory ninth sonata, the "Black Mass" Opus 68 [CD.8 tr.4], is a great example of this; it pays repeated listening.

For all that so many pianists are involved in presenting what can be taken as an extended portrait of a composer whose eccentricities and somewhat unusual inclusion of other senses (notably color) can tend to overshadow his music's innate worth, the set leaves the listener with what surely must be a rounded – certainly compelling – picture and sense of his achievements. The very fact that different performers bring more or less adherence to a romantic gentleness, a greater or reduced degree of the restrained sense of storm so typical of Scriabin, a considered or plainer communication of the visionary in the composer is a positive aspect of the set. For all approaches contribute to our getting to know and appreciate Scriabin's depth and breadth.

To many the named symphonies are the most familiar works. They all get good performances here. But perhaps not so visionary or transcending as do the solo piano works. Listen, for example, to the opening of the Third, "Le Poème Divin" [CD.13 tr.1]. On top of things though Ashkenazy clearly is, his phrasing and pace are a little reserved, a little too restrained even. If you subscribe to the assessment of Scriabin that he had an element of genius close to insanity, or at least eccentricity in common with some of his (near) contemporaries like Satie, then you'll long for a greater sense that the music is driven, inevitable, clairvoyant. While Inbal achieves great distances and vision in the Second symphony, he doesn't lack sensitivity or delicacy. Perhaps it's Gergiev with the Kirov Orchestra who is most impressive in the Poème de l'Extase, Op. 54, and Promethée – Le Poème du Feu, Op. 60 [CD.14]. His sense of architecture matches urgency with vision the most effectively. Drama shoots through the musing passages just as strikingly as through the climaxes. That is what Scriabin needs. His orchestral world is neither freakish nor deficient because self-avowedly extreme. On one or more of several limbs it may be for some. But it makes its impact in the hands of Gergiev very effectively.

The idea that Scriabin is hinting at something of great power is alluded to rather than emphasized in all the orchestral performances in the set. Things unfold with a regularity and linearity that contradict the freedom that surely defines the composer's intentions. There's no lack of understanding of color, feel or how Scriabin used orchestration to guide and direct our feelings… contrast and development, for example. And the momentum may well have been chosen as a potential antidote to the oft-leveled criticism that Scriabin's music "rambles". But the surprises and climaxes in these overtly mystical symphonies may be just a little tempered for some listeners.

The Preparation for the Final Mystery, which was realized by Alexander Nemtin, is an extraordinary work with even wider scope than the symphonies; and of course multiple references outside the purely musical. Such highly personal visions need sympathetic interpretations, ideally in some sympathy with the composer's vision. Yet without becoming tangled in its idiosyncrasies. In this case these are ones of length, scope and performance requirements. Stimulated by his reading of Nietzsche, Blok and Madame Blavatsky and the Russian Theosophists, the "Mysterium" was to be for large orchestra, mixed choir, visual (keyboard-light) effects, dancers, incense, processions and spoken text. Intended for performance in a cathedral whose body was to be "manipulated" by effects – of smoke and lights, the music itself was to have an effect on humanity in increasing consciousness and fulfillment. Scriabin only ever got as far as this "Preparation" for the Mysterium, also never completed.

Alexander Nemtin (1936-1999) devoted much of his life to realizing the 1,000 or so lines of poetry and 50 or so pages of sketches. the three parts were completed in 1973 (Universe), 1976 (Mankind) and 1996 (Transfiguration). the discursive nature of such a vast project somehow suits Ashkenazy better. He allows himself something of the more personal; and the soloists and Deutsches Sinfonie-Orchester seem happier to enter into the resulting bond. If you easily allow yourself to be swept away by Scriabin's translation of a very personal artistic conception into romantic and charged music, the control exercised in this music may be just too tight. If Scriabin's lack of conventional form – however apparent – is too inconclusive, then the performers' and Ashkenazy's direction are likely to assist and tether.

In either case – and certainly with the more compact Symphonies – you'd have to have a very cold heart not to feel at least a little tingle at the originality and richness of Scriabin's vision and grasp of orchestral texture and nuance. This must be due, in no small part, to the empathy which the performers feel with Scriabin's most typical compositional hallmarks – particularly the familiar tonal modulations –. Wordless choruses are never easy. These performers never fall into the trap of going through the motions. The music has passion and direction at all times. The same is true for the five symphonies.

These are all good symphonic performances; but not completely memorable. Mercifully, no attempt was made by to render the minor symphonic works on CDs 10, 11, 12 and 13 more spectacular or profound than they are. Although unexceptional, it's good to have them in your collection if a rounded portrait of the composer is your wish. Scriabin's intentions will stay with you after the music has finished; not the performers' musicianship. Jaws will not drop. But eyes will remain closed. What's more, the recordings of the Mysterium are the only ones currently available. By buying this Decca set of Scriabin's complete works, you'll pay barely $30 more than if you bought just the three CDs (on Decca 466329) of Ashkenazy's Preparation For The Final Mystery, which are included here. This alone for enthusiasts of the composer is a strong recommendation for this latest 18-CD set.

Scriabin's aesthetic matured over the course of his career (he lived a relatively short life, from 1871 to 1915). This set necessarily highlights the variety of the composer's output. In addition to the reflective – even in the orchestral and chamber works such as the Nuances [CD.15 tr.s 1-14] and the Variations [CD.10 tr.s 1-11] – there is of course the expansive… Preparation for the Final Mystery takes three CDs after all.

Similarly, alongside the retiring and the Chopin-inspired and familiar intimacy of single-movement Eighth Piano Sonata [CD.8. tr.1] there is the rhetorical, almost bombastic, certainly triumphal Opus 8 number 12 D sharp minor Ètude offered here by Lisitsa in the alternative version (WoO 22) [CD.2 tr.19] as well as Fergus-Thompson [CD.2 tr.18]. Perhaps the greatest achievement of every one of the pianists whose work is contained in this set is that they have made Scriabin very much his own person – for all his susceptibility to earlier composers' tonal styles, and for all his apparent contentment not to step too far from the likes of Chopin and Liszt, even Beethoven in his serenity. Indeed, at no time does any of the performers in this set "push" the music in a direction that attempts to point up similarities in the music of Scriabin with that of with Mahler, Brahms, Wagner, and even Dvořák – for they are there. We end up feeling deeply satisfied that what Scriabin is content with so are we.

The acoustics of the recordings, of course, are varied because they're necessarily from so many sources. At times the differences are very noticeable (as between Lisitsa, Allegro appassionato, Opus 4 and then Gordon Fergus-Thompson's Two Nocturnes, Opus 5 [CD.1, tr.s 15,16]). They may well may jar since the music so sweeps one along with it. Given the scope of this release the booklet has little real background. It contains all the necessary details of the music, full track listings, keys, performers and timings etc, as well as the texts of the relevant works and photos (though no bios) of a dozen and a half of the performers themselves. Hugh Macdonald's six-and-a-half page essay is useful; but there's so much more to be said.

If you're new to Scriabin, this set is an excellent place to start – not least because of its very attractive price. If you want to explore a composer, only a small and commonly-played fraction of whose works you knew, you might look at Ohlsson's Complete Poèmes on Hyperion CDA67988 and Malikova's sonatas on Acousence Classics 12214 as well as Boulez's selection of symphonic works on Deutsche Grammophon 459647. You would also be very safe with this set as a whole, though, for its consistency, musicianship, and support of Scriabin's eccentric world. For the musicians almost all draw out what's not potentially unusual or off-center. Their individual understanding of his world does Scriabin great service. And – in the end – it sheds light (no pun intended) on an unusual composer whose concentration, grasp of tonality (and even tonality's limits) and orchestral and pianistic sound deserves the celebration and greater understanding which it's begun to get this year.

Copyright © 2015, Mark Sealey