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Alexander SCRIABIN (1872-1915)
Solo Piano Music

Etude, Op. 2/1
Twelve Etudes, Op. 8 (1894)
Twenty-Four Preludes, Op. 11 (1888-1896)
Two Poems, Op. 32 (1903)
Elena Kuschnerova, piano
Recorded Hans-Rosbaud-Studio of SWR Baden-Baden, January/February 1999
ARS MUSICI AM 1259-2 [69:38]

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 cross-rhythms.

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 behind.

Kuschnerova definitely 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.

Don's Conclusions: 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.

Don Satz

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