Comparisons: Ponti/Vox; Pizarro/Collins
Classics; Feinberg/Scriabin/Russian Season
This is an exceptional
recording of Scriabin's 21 Mazurkas.
In the booklet notes, the Scriabin scholar
John Bell Young is quoted as saying
of Le Van, "Terrific! He is a Scriabinist
to the manner born". After listening
to the Music & Arts recording, I
certainly agree with Mr. Young and have
greatly enjoyed these illuminating interpretations.
I should relate that
John Bell Young and I have corresponded
in the past, and I have learnt a great
deal about Scriabin through Young's
expert counsel, speeches and articles.
Young talks about being a Scriabinist.
Just what is a Scriabinist, and can
a pianist well convey the music without
In the interests of
time, I'll only offer short and simple
answers. A Scriabinist has tapped into
the psychology of the composer and his
music through study and the performing/listening
process. As an example, study tells
us that Scriabin was highly critical
of how other pianists played his music.
He complained that most pianists did
not offer the rhythmic elasticity his
music required and also played in too
heavy a manner. He insisted that his
works needed frequently changing fluctuations
in tempo and dynamics to reflect his
numerous changes in emotional content.
We also know that Scriabin performed
his own music in the same manner in
which he talked about it, because there
are recorded documents of his interpretations
such as on the Russian Season disc noted
in the heading.
The above might appear
to bring up the issue of whether Scriabin
was the best judge of how to interpret
and convey his compositions. Personally,
I don't think this is an issue at all.
If you want to hear the 'real Scriabin'
through other artists, those artists
will have to play in the Scriabinist
style and reflect his sound-world. You
might personally enjoy an alternative
type of interpretation, but you will
only be listening to Scriabin's notes.
We can't be sure how Bach wanted his
works to be performed, but we are on
solid ground with Scriabin.
What is the Scriabin
sound-world? Perhaps the most crucial
element to keep in mind is musical tension.
I am not referring to an overt display
of tension, but a subtle display that
is founded on articulation, inflection
and brooding bass lines. Playing the
music with insufficient tension is the
"kiss of death" for a performance of
Cross-rhythms are another
major part of Scriabin's sound-world,
creating much of the beauty and interest
in the music. Melancholy is also a strong
component, and you won't find a composer
who conveys it more effectively or frequently;
in excellent performances, the sadness
pierces the heart at every turn. Suspended
notes, naive and unfettered joy, playfulness
and rhythmic elasticity of both the
horizontal and vertical variety are
important ingredients as well.
Then we have all those
emotional outbursts so characteristic
of Scriabin's compositions. Where do
they musically come from? - the tension,
melancholy, and cross-rhythms. If the
pianist does not convey these qualities,
the outbursts have no meaning and sound
Lastly, there is the
matter of spacing between notes. Scriabin
did not take kindly to his music being
played with empty spaces. He used spacing
to carry-over the previous thought and
act as a conduit for the next idea.
This is where extremely slow performances
of Scriabin's works run the risk of
cluttering the musical landscape with
empty space, a trait that ruins the
Scriabin series of piano works played
by Gordon Fergus-Thompson on ASV. Does
Scriabin's music sound best when the
above features are covered? Most assuredly.
To ignore them makes his music entirely
generic in the worst sense of the 'international
I have been hitting
the byways of this review and should
turn my attention to Eric Le Van's background.
He was born in Los Angeles and started
playing the piano at the age of five
and the violin when he was seven. One
of his teachers was Earle Voorhies who
studied with the Liszt pupil Alexander
Siloti. Eventually, Le Van received
a Fulbright grant to study with Professor
Karl-Heinz Kammerling in Hanover. Le
Van already has a few recordings under
his belt, including highly acclaimed
discs of the solo piano music of Brahms
and Raff. He currently resides in France,
performs often in public, and is the
Artistic Director of the International
Franz Liszt Festival.
To give a clear idea
of how Le Van treats the Scriabin Mazurkas,
introducing the recorded performances
of Michael Ponti and Artur Pizarro is
just the ticket. Although both pianists
are excellent, their approaches are
worlds apart. Ponti is quick and light
on his feet with exuberant rhythmic
patterns and exceptional vertical elasticity.
Pizarro is quite slow and rich with
outstanding articulation and freely
flowing rhythms. Ponti places high priority
on clarity and the detail of inner voices,
while Pizarro follows the long line
of the music.
If we think of Ponti
and Pizarro as occupying opposite ends
of the musical spectrum, Le Van is positioned
right in the middle. His clarity and
detail are exemplary, although less
well-defined than Ponti's. Le Van's
tempos are moderate as well as his rhythmic
bounce and vertical/horizontal elasticity.
Essentially, a look at any of his musical
features shows his approach to be one
Of course, a moderate
approach does not reveal how effectively
the artist portrays Scriabin's sound-world.
The following is my assessment of how
well Le Van handles some of the basic
Tension - Le Van's
application is superb in each of the
21 Mazurkas. This makes for very compelling
interpretations, the consistent urgency
of his readings rendering the emotional
outbursts as natural and inevitable
releases of energy.
- Although different listeners would
have a range of opinions concerning
many of Le Van's interpretative stances,
I can't imagine anyone not agreeing
that his elasticity is very fluid with
a great sense of the composer's long
musical lines and structural coherence.
Le Van's horizontal elasticity is particularly
stunning, although the vertical lines
certainly stream upward in enticing
Heaviness - As mentioned
earlier in the review, Scriabin often
complained that pianists used too heavy
a touch in their performances. He definitely
would not complain about Le Van's touch
which is feathery and delicious. For
a good example, check out the first
section of Op. 3 no. 4 where the melody
line glides effortlessly over the foundation
created by the lower voices.
Fluctuations in Tempo
and Dynamics - Not as strong in this
area as Ponti, Le Van nevertheless displays
a fine degree of adaptation and well
handles the sudden nature of Scriabin's
ever-changing musical environment.
Melancholy - Le Van
carries Scriabin's pervasive melancholy
with incisiveness and beauty. Pieces
such as Op. 3/3 and 3/5 are heart-stoppers
in his hands, and I think it fair to
say that no other recording of the Mazurkas
captures the musical sadness as thoroughly.
Add in a superb soundstage
of clarity, depth, and richness, and
we have one of the most successful Scriabin
piano recordings in the past few years.
It is not an easy task to be competitive
with the greatest Scriabin pianists
of the past such as Vladimir Sofronitsky,
Samuel Feinberg, Sviatoslav Richter,
Roberto Szidon, Vladimir Horowitz, and
Scriabin himself. Le Van deserves to
be placed in this exalted company, and
he enjoys the best sonics that modern
recording techniques can offer.
In conclusion, Scriabin's
piano music gets only a fraction of
the exposure it warrants, and I personally
place the blame on the generic style
used by most pianists of the modern
era. Many listeners have formed their
opinion of Scriabin from the Piers Lane
recordings on Hyperion and the lifeless
Fergus-Thompson interpretations mentioned
earlier in the review. These recordings
do not give us a true and compelling
picture of Scriabin's sound-world, but
Eric Le Van offers a full-course dinner
of the composer's musical personality.
He is inside Scriabin's complex and
self-oriented psychology, and that's
90% of the battle. Grab up this Music
& Arts release and enjoy Scriabin's
unique and transcendent music performed
by a "Scriabinist to the manner born".