Alexander SCRIABIN (1872-1915)
Yulian Alexandrovich SCRIABIN (1908–1919)
Vers La Flamme
Vladimir Ashkenazy (piano)
rec. 2014, Potton Hall, Suffolk, UK
DECCA CLASSICS 4788155 [78:46]

Ashkenazy doesn’t play the piano in public anymore due to ‘physical problems’: three misshapen fingers due to arthritis. Fortunately, for us, he continues to record in his role as pianist, with the studio offering him the opportunity to redo passages he doesn’t feel completely comfortable with. Last year, he collaborated on a recording with his son, the clarinetist Dimitri Ashkenazy. This year, to celebrate the centenary of Scriabin’s death, Decca have released this CD of a selection of the composer’s solo piano music, which the pianist recorded at the end of last year. Scriabin has featured prominently in Ashkenazy’s discography, with distinguished recordings of the Piano Concerto and complete piano sonatas - both included in the recent Decca box of the complete works (4788168). As a conductor, he has set down studio recordings of the three Symphonies, Prometheus and The Poem of Ecstasy for Decca and also for the same label the speculative completion of Scriabin's The Final Mystery.

The recital is chronologically sequenced and encompasses a range of solo piano pieces from the composer’s entire oeuvre, beginning in 1887 when he was fifteen, to 1914, a year before his death at the age of forty-three. An outstanding characteristic of all of these works is their brevity, with most lasting for two minutes or less. Scriabin was the master of the short composition par excellence, with distillation of ideas and economy of expression being distinguishing features. The early mazurkas and preludes sourced their inspiration from Chopin, yet all are stamped with Scriabin’s highly personal and idiosyncratic fingerprints. The listener is taken on a journey of discovery from the composer’s romantic beginnings to the last works, imbued with chromaticism and mysticism.

Scriabin’s piano music calls for a strong technique and an imaginative range of expression. By Op. 52 the music shows a progression to a new style. The works begin to be imprinted with an advanced harmonic language, together with a more personal idiom and style. From Op. 60 onwards he only composed piano music, short pieces alongside the last five piano sonatas. In these late pieces, the composer finally parts company with tonality and conventional melody and moves towards dissonance. Hugh Macdonald in the booklet notes sums up the character of this music when he says that it ‘….often seems to start and end in the middle, as if heard through a window that opens and then shuts’.

The opening Étude, op.2 no.1, written when the composer was fifteen years old, has a nobility in Ashkenazy’s hands. The chords are exquisitely voiced, and he manages to capture the sombre and doleful Russian character. In the Mazurka, Op. 3 No. 6, marked Scherzando, he fails to find the capricious and quixotic elements that distinguish Samuil Feinberg’s reading. In the Op.8, No. 12 in D sharp minor Ashkenazy plays with great drama and passion, but he never really reaches the supreme heights of Horowitz. It is in the later more dissonant pieces that Ashkenazy comes into his own, highlighting the lush harmonic textures and bathing them in swathes of colour. This is especially evident in the three sets of Poèmes, Opp. 63, 69 and 71.

Vers La Flamme, from which the CD derives its title, is the longest work in the recital at just over five minutes in length. The work is almost orchestral in texture, and consists of a falling semitone figure running throughout, with hardly any melody at all. The image of an intense, fiery luminescence is conjured up by the use of tremolos. The piece builds up to a terrifying climax ‘toward the flame’. For me, Horowitz is unequalled in this work, investing the score with a passion and ecstasy few have achieved. To my ear he uses less sustaining pedal and, as a consequence, accomplishes a technical clarity missing from many recordings. The spectrum of colour in his playing is also something to be marvelled at. Ashkenazy’s performance is no match for this, with a reading less dramatic and tame by comparison.

To end, Ashkenazy plays the Prélude, op.3 no.1 by the composer’s son Yulian Alexandrovich Scriabin. The boy was only ten years old when he composed it. Sadly, he died the following year in a drowning accident. It clearly shows the strong influence of the father, and makes for a poignant end to the recital.

Informative annotations, setting the works in context, are provided by Hugh Macdonald. The venue of Potton Hall in Suffolk responds favourably to this music, providing a sense of space and warmth and allowing the music to breathe. Many, like myself, will welcome Ashkenazy’s return to the studio, as pianist, for this fitting tribute to celebrate the centenary of Scriabin’s death.

Stephen Greenbank

Alexander SCRIABIN
Étude, op.2 no.1 [2:47]
Mazurkas, op.3
VI Scherzando [2:29]
VII Con passione [3:32]
X Sotto voce [5:59]
Études, op.8
V Brioso [2:14]
VII Presto tenebroso, agitato [1:47]
X Allegro [1:55]
XI Andante [4:13]
XII Patetico [2:20]
4 Préludes, op.22
I Andante [1:35]
II Andante [1:09]
III Allegretto [1:10]
IV Andantino [1:10]
8 Études, op.42
I Presto [1:47]
II q = 112 [0:55]
III Prestissimo [1:00]
IV Andante [2:37]
V Affannato [3:03]
VI Esaltato [1:53]
VII Agitato [1:00
VIII Allegro [2:41]
3 Morceaux, op.45
I Feuillet d’album [0:57]
II Poème fantasque [0:27]
III Prélude [1:10]
Quasi-valse, op.47 [1:19
3 Morceaux, op.52
I Poème [:.41
II Énigme [0:54]
III Poème languide [0:57]
2 Pièces, op.57
I Désir [1:18]
II Caresse dansée [1:15]
Feuillet d’album, op.58 [1:23]
2 Poèmes, op.63
I Masque [0:55]
II Étrangeté [1:35]
2 Poèmes, op.69
I Allegretto. Tendre, délicat [1:51]
II Allegretto. Aigu, capricieux [1:05]
2 Poèmes, op.71
I Fantastique [:.47]
II En rêvant, avec une grande douceur [1:53]
Vers la flamme, op.72 [5:02]
5 Préludes, op.74
I Douloureux, déchirant [0:53]
II Très lent, contemplatif [0:56]
III Allegro drammatico [0:44]
IV Lent, vague, indécis [1:14]
V Fier, belliqueux [1:09]
Yulian Alexandrovich SCRIABIN
Prélude, op.3 no.1 [1:07]

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