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Alexander SCRIABIN (1872-1915)
Symphony No. 1 (1901) [47.11]
Symphony No. 2 (1902) [41.28]
Symphony No. 3 Divine Poem (1905) [47.03]
Piano Concerto (1897) [27.41]
Poem of Ecstasy (1908) [19.07]
Prometheus - Poem of Fire (1910) [21.40]
Reverie (1898) [4.10]
Peter Jablonski (piano)
Brigitte Balleys (sop) *
Sergei Larin (ten) *
Rundfunkchor Berlin/Gerd Müller-Lorenz
Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin/Vladimir Ashkenazy
rec. Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin-Dahlem, May 1990 (Reverie; 3), June 1990 (Ecstasy), Sept 1995 (2; Concerto); Schauspielhaus, Berlin, June 1994. DDD
DECCA TRIO 473 971-2 [CD1: 68.52; CD2: 69.27; CD3: 70.12; total: 208.00]

Universal continue to pour out reissues at attractive prices. On the bargain shelves this is difficult to resist if you are intrigued by the repertoire.

I detect something of a dichotomy when it comes to Scriabin. Are there, as I suspect, two distinct audiences - one for the piano solo music and another for the orchestral music. The piano solos have been lapped up by the connoisseurs. The self-indulgent fringe has tended to gravitate towards the sprawling mystical romance of the orchestral works. The connoisseurs may well choose to look somewhat pityingly on those who indulge a louche taste for the magniloquence of these fervent monuments to egoism reaching for the unattainable. If I am right in these completely evidence-absent speculations then these two audiences hardly ever meet.

Of the Inbal (Frankfurt RSO Philips Duo 454 271-2), Muti (EMI Classics 7243 5 67720 2 1), Ashkenazy triumvirate Muti best captures the hedonism and mystical rapture of Scriabin. This is apparent time and again. Listen to the exotic soup of the wistful and the hysterical in the plunging and then musing Allegro (tr. 5) of the First Symphony. I have always loved the Allegro movement ever since hearing the Svetlanov recording in the early 1970s. The romantic flames are fanned with more well placed impetuosity by Ashkenazy than by Muti.

Of course Muti also has the Stokowski/Ormandy ‘instrument’ at his bidding and this does make a difference. The Ashkenazy’s Berlin orchestra is capable and fully committed but they are not even the city’s first orchestra. The Muti set was recorded from 1985 to 1990 while the Ashkenazy dates from 1990-1995 and has a little more immediacy even though the Berlin orchestra's massed violins lack the lustrous sheen of the Philadelphians.

There are two works here that do not fit the mystic-exotic ‘shoe’. The early Reverie might easily be by Balakirev or Arensky. The other is the Scriabin Piano Concerto. This is a national treasure of a work - full of glorious melodies and creative coups. I have heard it compared with Chopin but it is much better than either of those two concertos. In the right hands it is the quintessence of the romantic spirit written before egoism took hold. The Postnikova version on Chandos is very good in this respect, as reportedly is Garrick Ohlsson's version on Supraphon. I first came to know the piece from an old EMI-Melodiya LP which had the piece played by Heinrich Neuhaus. This is the version on which I imprinted.

The Muti set was always hampered by the absence of the Piano Concerto which for me remains one of the joys of the Scriabin catalogue. Jablonski lacks something in poetry but is by no means insensitive and this certainly gives the edge to Ashkenazy. Ashkenazy’s Second and Third Symphonies as well as Prometheus are given combustible and volatile readings and the recording quality is good but Muti alluringly delivers greater allure and a much stronger sense of the yield and grip of the moment. There is not a gulf of difference between the two but enough to make a recommendation in favour of the EMI in a straight stand-off between the two. If you were to be guided by generosity of coverage then I do not see anyone feeling cheated by the Decca set. The performances are certainly more than capable. In addition if you wanted to push the boat out further into speculative waters then Ashkenazy and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin have also recorded a three CD set of Scriabin’s preparation for The Final Mystery (Decca 466 329-2) in a realisation/completion by Alexander Nemtin. Heady stuff if not consistently inspired and inspiring.

Those with tolerant ears and minds aspiring to Slavonic intensity and wild-eyed heady spontaneity have no choice. They should straightaway track down the four Boheme CDs of Scriabin’s symphonies, piano concerto and poems conducted by Nikolai Golovanov. However these are in mono and some people may object to the sound which dates back 1946-1952. For Scriabin aficionados these CDs form an essential appendix to the modern recording of choice. The serials are: 1. CDBMR907-081; 2. 907082, 3. 907-083, Concerto: 908087. Golovanov’s pianists in the concerto are Genrikh Neigauz and in the Prometheus Alexander Goldenweizer. Hall of Fame recordings. Boheme have made a superb job of processing the sound on these recordings now between forty and fifty years old.

The Ashkenazy is the ideal choice for those who find Scriabin too consistently hysterical. Ashkenazy applies the emotional brakes - not so hard as to bleach out the emotion but enough to denote some control. In any event a most generous set that will certainly satisfy. Personally though I still side with the Muti and with the unmissable yet primitively recorded Golovanov.

Rob Barnett

see also review by Michael Cookson

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