In past reviews of
recordings of Scriabin's piano music
I have hammered away at my premise that
most modern-era pianists short-change
his music by placing almost total emphasis
on the beauty of the music. They neglect
the tension that makes Scriabin's emotional
outbursts a natural progression of the
musical argument and generally do not
reach deeply into the angst that he
conveys. Most significant, they gloss
over what I call the 'points of emphasis'
that consistently inform the music;
it could be a slur, an inflection, an
accent, a moment in a cross-rhythm,
or even the spacing between notes. These
points of emphasis need to be strongly
projected and articulated in order for
the real Scriabin to emerge.
In her Scriabin recital
disc on Ars Musici, Elena Kuschnerova
falls somewhat into the trap where most
other pianists reside. Tension can be
weak, resulting in climaxes that make
little sense and therefore sound contrived.
Rhythmic vitality is dampened, and there
is little recognition that Scriabin's
music presents a troubled and often
manic state of mind. Further, points
of emphasis usually are glossed over
in the quest to smooth out the music
and deliver lovely performances.
Having said the above,
I can't deny that you won't find more
gorgeous music-making than from Kuschnerova.
She targets beauty and sensuality in
a totally beguiling fashion, and the
recorded sound is fantastic with deep,
clear, and sultry tones. Also, she does
a fine job with Scriabin's compelling
The issue I raise is
whether beauty and sensuality are all
that Scriabin has to offer, and my view
is that his music offers much more than
that. Scriabin's piano music conveys
the ego-centric and tortured soul trying
to get a handle on life and ultimately
not succeeding. Is there any historical
evidence to support my opinion? Most
certainly. We have recorded examples
from Scriabin himself and quite a few
from some Russian master pianists such
as Vladimir Sofronitsky and Samuel Feinberg.
These recorded documents clearly reveal
the emphasis on cross-rhythms, tension,
despair, and the other qualities I mentioned
above. Since the points of emphasis
are in Scriabin's score and there are
numerous authoritative recordings showing
how to appropriately perform Scriabin,
I do become puzzled as to why so many
pianists disregard the correct program
and present him in a watered-down manner.
It has been said that classical music
performance style becomes more generic
as time progresses, and Scriabin's music
has thoroughly been caught up in this
generic wash. Regardless, all I can
do is cite the recordings that cut Scriabin
down at the knees and differentiate
them from those that give us the total
picture of one of the greatest composers
of the 20th century.
As a simple example,
let's look at the early Etude, Op. 2/1.
In most recordings, the piece is poignant
with moderate angst; this is how Kuschnerova
plays it, and the lovely phrasing is
a joy to listen to. However, switch
to Sofronitsky (Scriabin's son-in-law)
and we hear utter despair and a bleakness
of immense magnitude and finality. Sofronitsky
knows that the music's beauty really
comes from its despair and does not
need to be highlighted as a separate
quality. Essentially, Kuschnerova gives
a limiting performance, while Sofronitsky
delivers the total package.
Kuschnerova gives an
attractive account of the Opus 8 Etudes,
but the depth of despair continues at
a relatively low level. Still, there's
a sultry quality to her playing that
is always irresistible.
The Opus 34 Preludes
are quite different than the Etudes
and play well into Kuschnerova's strengths.
In the Etudes, there is time for musical
argument and the progression of thematic
material. The Preludes consist of very
short works of a monothematic structure;
they are also among the most beautiful
and haunting pieces of music on earth.
The D flat major just might be the most
gorgeous miniature ever composed, and
many of the other Preludes are close
shines in the Preludes. She captures
their unfolding mystery to perfection,
the elasticity seems to know no bounds,
and listeners will swoon at her erotic
rhythms and phrasing. Although the performances
are highly cultivated, she is able to
convey an intense sexuality. Without
a doubt, her Preludes are the highlight
of the program.
The disc concludes
with the two highly contrasted Poèmes
of Opus 32. The first is an Andante
that Kuschnerova plays lovingly, and
the second an Allegro that she attacks
with a vengeance. The two pieces are
also different from the other works
on the program in that they display
a more modern sensibility and largely
eschew the Chopinesque properties inherent
in Scriabin's early Etudes and Preludes.
I can certainly recommend any disc so
captivating and gorgeous as the Kuschnerova.
With the added feature of state-of-the-art
sound, this is a recording sure to please
the senses. If you buy it, go directly
to the Opus 34 Preludes and listen with
a significant other.
What other recordings
should you turn to? A few that come
to mind are an out-of print Russian
Seasons disc with authoritative performances
from Scriabin and other master Russian
pianists of the early 20th century,
a number of Sviatoslav Richter recordings
on various labels, a Philips Great Pianists
disc featuring Sofronitsky playing Chopin
and Scriabin, an Auvidis disc of Nikita
Magaloff playing the Scriabin Etudes,
and a very recent recording of the Mazurkas
from Eric Le Van on Music & Arts.
Also recommended are a Pierian disc
of Scriabin playing his works through
the medium of piano rolls, and the newly
reissued set of the complete Piano Sonatas
from Roberto Szidon on Deutsche Grammophon.
With some of these recordings under
your belt, you should have excellent
insight as to additional Scriabin discs
that will fully meet the requirements
of his piano music.