Alexander SKRIABIN (1872-1915)
Sonata-Fantasia no.2, op.19 (1892-7) [12:47]
Two Poems, op.32 (1903) [5:05]
Five Preludes, op.74 (1914) [7:12]
Three Etudes, op.65 (1911-12) [7:26]
Nikolai ROSLAVETS (1881-1944)
Sonata no.2 (1916) [12:07]
Two Poems (1920) [5:26]
Five Preludes (1919-22) [10:16]
Three Etudes (1914) [12:49]
Anya Alexeyev (piano)
rec. Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario, 26 October, 22 November 2009. DDD
MARQUIS 81415 [72:46]

This recording is premised on an enterprising and much undervalued idea: a direct comparison of identically titled works of two near-contemporaries - in this case, one well-known, the other less so. In her second recording for Canadian label Marquis, Russian pianist Anya Alexeyev performs side by side not only the Second Sonatas of Skriabin and Nikolai Roslavets, but also works they both called Two Poems, Five Preludes and Three Etudes. There are further surface similarities immediately apparent from Alexeyev's programme too: the Second Sonatas are both atypically in two movements, and both the Sonatas and the pairs of Two Poems are of almost identical length.

Ostensibly then, Roslavets appears to be imitating Skriabin - in every case he, younger by nearly ten years, wrote his work up to two decades after his illustrious compatriot. Coincidence can be ruled out by the fact that Roslavets, like much of artistic Europe, knew Skriabin's music and theories, and held him in high esteem. Yet Roslavets did not follow Skriabin down the road of mysticism - on the contrary, he became known as a Constructivist, a vaguish term in music that meant he was, in so many words, a modernist.

In fact, Roslavets was sometimes known, not altogether enlighteningly, as the 'Russian Schoenberg', chiefly for his 'synthetic chord' theory, in which he was inspired by Skriabin's 'chord of Prometheus', and which he eventually expanded to include rhythm and other musical elements. In terms of sounds made by instruments for audiences, Roslavets's theory produced music that is densely chromatic, or 'post-tonal', and the effect might be characterised as a kind of listener-friendlier version of serialism.

In any case, a similarity of style - or at least effect - in these works is striking. Skriabin was already dead by the time Roslavets wrote most of this music, and for non-specialised audiences at least, Roslavets's sounds like a continuation of Skriabin's. Not merely a continuation, however, but an advancement: Roslavets certainly cannot be said to emerge from this comparison as the lesser composer.

Musical similarities and differences are most obvious in the Three Etudes, written within a couple of years of each, though Skriabin was close to the end of his short, troubled life, whereas Roslavets's career was just lifting off. Skriabin's Etudes are difficult enough studies in parallel ninths, sevenths and fifths, but those by Roslavets make them seem almost like child's play; in her notes, indeed, Anna Ferenc describes these "studies in rhythmic contortion" as among the most difficult pieces in the piano repertoire, sometimes requiring four staves for notation!

The full extent of musical isomorphism may be partially slurred by Anya Alexeyev's style. There is certainly a degree of uniformity of mood in all but the Sonatas - restraint, languor, introversion - not entirely accounted for by the two composers' dynamics markings. Nevertheless, Alexeyev is clearly a fine soloist, and her Russian pianist bloodline gives her essential insight into the minds of Roslavets and - to the extent that it is possible - of Skriabin.

After early championing by the likes of Richter and Horowitz, Skriabin's piano music is fairly well represented in recordings, for example Maria Lettberg's impressive account of the complete solo piano works in Capriccio's recent 8-CD and bonus DVD set (see review). Thankfully too, Roslavets's piano music has had a handful of recordings devoted to it by now, most notably a 1997 Hyperion release (66926) by Marc-André Hamelin, and Irina Emeliantseva on Neos (10902), both featuring all the works played here by Alexeyev, and more.

This new disc remains, however, an attractive choice for the curious. Sound quality is excellent. The bad news is, there is no CD booklet as such - just a few basic details about the programme and Alexeyev printed straight onto the card case. The good news is, a PDF document can be downloaded for free (no purchase necessary) from Marquis's website here, with notes by Anna Ferenc, author of Roslavets's entry in the Grove Music Online.

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An attractive choice for the curious.