Top positive review
12 people found this helpful
on 5 December 2005
If Scriabin is an acquired taste, it's a taste that I acquired very easily. Like certain composers (e.g. Schoenberg) and unlike certain others (e.g. Rachmaninov) whose careers cover the late 19th and early 20th centuries, his idiom changed fairly drastically in the process. In Scriabin's case this change did not amount to a complete abjuration of the late romantic idiom, but well before his untimely death he had ceased to ascribe 'keys' to his works and had also stopped dividing them into separate movements in the traditional way, something Schoenberg always clung to. He took himself quite unbelievably seriously, developing a mission to redeem mankind through art. That sort of thing, like the similar aspirations of Shelley and Coleridge, seems hokum to me, but hokum whose results I happen to enjoy. I also sympathise entirely with his yearning, expressed in connexion with the 3rd symphony, for '...the evolution of the human spirit...torn from an entire past of beliefs and mysteries which it surmounts and overcomes...' Progress in this respect still seems deplorably slow and prone to relapse, and I sense that creative artists have lowered their sights to some extent in terms of what they think they can achieve along these lines.
The title of this set 'Complete Symphonies' seems to me a good one. Of the five main works here the first three bear the name of 'symphony', and the Poeme de l'Extase was conceived under the same title and intended at first to be in four movements, but by now Scriabin's imagination was taking leave of terra firma. When the work appeared in 1907 it was heralded by a 'philosophical programme' in verse, and its title is of course 'Poem'. If it is a symphony in some sense, then so is the final Prometheus - the Poem of Fire. This not only abandons the standard symphonic division into movements but envisages a wordless chorus, an obbligato piano part and even some kind of magic lantern that he wanted to project specified colours into the audience. The first performance of the work, in Moscow in 1911, lacked this colourful feature, a lack rectified at a performance in New York in 1915, the year of Scriabin's death. As for the harmony, it is roughly as radical as that of Delius.
In addition to the symphonies this set provides two earlier works, the piano concerto and a short Reverie. These, and the first symphony, are very traditional in idiom, and none the worse for that I'd say. The second symphony is a little bolder, but the real adult Scriabin first appears in the third symphony which is on the third disc of the set. The recording dates from several years earlier than the other two discs, but it seems to me much more satisfactory. The earlier discs are not badly recorded to be sure, but the sound lacks presence and vividness. The volume level is on the low side, but while turning it up improves matters a little it doesn't solve the basic problem - after a point it is just too loud and the sound is still not what Scriabin quite needs. I compared my vinyl set of the two Poems from Ormandy, and the difference in sound-quality in the Poeme du Feu on disc 1 is startling. There is still a difference when it comes to the Poeme de l'Extase on disc 3, but it is not so great, and it is less attributable to the recording. It points up, I think, some characteristics of the conductor.
As well as the two Poems, my collection of Scriabin contains quite a fair selection of his solo piano works, played by Horowitz, Richter, Ogdon, Gould - and Ashkenazy. Of these performances I like Ashkenazy's the least by quite a long way, because I have always found too much of his playing to be just a bit ordinary. When it came to listening to him in his latter-day incarnation as a conductor, I admit I underwent the process with some suspicions. These were founded on my previous experience of him as an interpreter even in his prime, but also caused by some scepticism regarding retired soloists finding a new career as conductors. Beecham, Toscanini and Karajan had a mission from the outset to be conductors. They went into the business when young, and they knew not to underestimate what it required. Elderly gentlemen taking the baton up as a sunset career will be treated doubtless with the respect due to their erstwhile eminence, but I wouldn't expect great things from them, nor do I find great things here. The difference from Ormandy shows markedly even in the Poeme de l'Extase. There is simply far more refinement, subtlety and sheer quality in Ormandy's account, and the recording, from sometime in the 70's, is actually better too, even on vinyl. The gap is even greater in Prometheus, affecting in particular the piano part from Peter Jablonski, given a recorded sound that is too discreet by half or more than half. This young player gets a fairer opportunity in the concerto, an attractive early work which he performs with aplomb and distinction. The first two symphonies and the Reverie are attractive too, and having nothing to compare them with I was consequently less critical.
In fact you will get very fair performances of Scriabin in general here, just not 5-star ones. The production is admirable in many ways, with the pieces sequenced with some imagination rather than in strict order of composition. The liner-note takes them in that order, and sensibly so, and it is a very sound and helpful production from Andrew Huth. I have no regrets at all about purchasing this interesting set, and I have given honesty and balance my best shot in the foregoing opinions.