> Scriabin Symphony 3 Gielen[JL]: Classical CD Reviews- Oct 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Alexander SCRIABIN (1872-1915)
Symphony No. 3 op. 43 "Le divin Poème"
Ferruccio BUSONI (1866-1924)

Berceuse élégiaque Op. 42

Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)

Une barque sur líocéan

Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)

Scherzo à la russe

SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg Leitung/Michael Gielen
Recorded Baden-Baden 1975 (Scriabin), 1995 (Busoni), 1997 (Ravel); in Freiburg 1998 (Stravinsky)


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The Third Symphony was the last Scriabin wrote. He was thirty two at the time of its completion in 1904. The Second had been finished three years earlier and it was around that time that Scriabin began increasingly immersing himself in philosophical literature (e.g. Nietzsche), developing and expounding his ideas in writings of his own. His notion of music as a synthesised art form (drawing on literary, poetic, philosophical and other elements) that could put us in touch with some sort of spiritual realm helped him to acquire something of a cult following. The ideas were not a million miles away from some of those that Wagner derived from Schopenhauer in writing Tristan. Tristan can stand as a powerful musical experience for those who know little of, or don't understand, its Schopenhaueran origins (the great majority I suspect). Can Scriabin's Third Symphony stand the same test?

This unwieldy beast of a work was launched on a thermal of pseudo-metaphysical hot air. I suggest that its potential to stay aloft (and pass the aforementioned test) depends very much on the conviction of the performance. The obvious condition for this is a conductor who really believes in the music and has the ability to convey his/her conviction to the players. Sadly, this prerequisite does not appear to be in place here. One has only to take the first few pages of score and compare Gielenís performance with a recording that has been well regarded for many years. The late Sir John Pritchard, of all people, in conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conveys at the opening the clearly intended aura of mystery and portentousness, then seamlessly moves into the allegro with admirable inevitability. Scriabinís transitions are not easy to navigate yet in a work where there are many such moments it is essential that organic growth is achieved, by whatever skilful sleight of hand, otherwise the overall structure can become tediously sectionalised.

Gielen does not seem to have what it takes. There is not the same sense of mystery, and in a work that is melodically cyclical in nature he still manages to sectionalise it with poorly handled transitions. Scriabinís vital soaring phrases, musical fingerprints symbolic of an aspiration to free the spirit, are jumped at by Gielen so they sound like passing moments rather than an essential part of the narrative. The playing is competent enough and Scriabinís novel textures often sound well but there is not the sense of commitment that can be heard with the BBC players. Also, Pritchard gets a more voluptuous tone from his strings, employing at times a hint of note sliding that goes well with the music and is in keeping with the practice of the time. Perhaps it is no wonder that Gielen does not convey the necessary conviction for, as outlined in a note in the booklet, he seems to have taken up the work for the wrong reasons. In a visit to the USA in the early seventies he says he chose it so as not to do "what everyone else always plays", and also, "to force myself to learn this kind of piece".

For those who are looking for a Scriabin Third only, then there are other fine recordings around. A suitably Russian offering is Pletnevís DG recording with the Russian National Orchestra. Coupled with an outstanding poème díextase, the Symphony has a gravitas to it that brings conviction. For those wanting to come to grips with examples of Scriabinís orchestral works including all three symphonies, then there is Ricardo Mutiís bargain EMI two-disc set that brings real excitement to the Third Symphony. Both have better sound quality.

Back to the Gielen disc. The overall offering makes for an interesting orchestral recital but again there are better performances of the fillers. For example, Busoniís atmospheric Berceuse élégiaque generates much more atmosphere in a recent Chandos recording with the BBC Philharmonic under Järvi. It seems that Hänssler Classic, who have a special relationship with the SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg Leitung, have simply dug into the orchestraís archives and served up on one disc an arbitrary collection of recordings made over many years (the one of the Symphony is over a quarter of a century old!), all with their former conductor, Michael Gielen.

John Leeman

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