Alexander SCRIABIN (1872-1915)
The Poem of Ecstasy (transcr. Sergei Pavchinsky, 1955) [19:34]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
La lugubre gondola No.2 [7:33]
Harald BANTER (b.1930)
Naître et disparaître – homage to Scriabin [9:00]
Manfred KELKEL (1929-1999)
Tombeau de Scriabine op.22 [16:45]
Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus: I. Regard du Père [6:20]; XX. Regard de l’Église d’amour [13:08]
Maria Lettberg (piano)
rec. Studio Britz, Berlin, Germany, 2014
ES-DUR ES2058 [72:56]

Latvian-born Swedish citizen and Berlin-resident Maria Lettberg freely admits to being haunted by the music of Alexander Scriabin. This new release marks her tenth Scriabin themed disc; the first nine exclusively of Scriabin’s piano music with and without opus numbers.

Lettberg’s playing is characterised by great sensitivity and close attention to detail. It results in a thrilling listening experience. I hadn’t heard the Pavchinsky version for solo piano of Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy but it works extremely well. It accentuates the ethereal nature of the work which quality is the hallmark of Scriabin’s writing. Stripping it of its heady orchestral sweep the solo piano version concentrates the ear on the poetical aspect which is here revealed even more clearly.

The idea behind the present disc is to showcase music that mirrors this otherworldly atmosphere. The Liszt composition La lugubre gondola No.2 is certainly from the same stable with its reflective and sombre canvas. Liszt predated Scriabin by several decades but clearly must have exerted an influence on the Russian mystic. There is some documentary evidence to support the idea that Liszt composed the first version of this piece following a premonition of the death of Wagner which he had whilst he was Wagner’s guest at the Palazzo Vendramin on the Grand Canal in Venice in late 1882. It was recomposed in January 1883 and this version is known as No.2 and was the only one that was heard until the first version was published in 2002, 120 years later. Whether Liszt’s premonition had any real basis is open to conjecture but the fact is that Wagner did die in Venice on 13 February 1883. The piece certainly inhabits the same soundworld as the music of Scriabin and as such fulfils the remit of this disc very comfortably.

Harald Banter is likely to be unknown to all but the most serious students of music. That certainly includes me for whom the name was just a name but on the basis of this piece is one I should get to know better. Banter wrote this piece especially for Maria Lettberg after hearing her previous Scriabin discs. Banter has tapped into the dreamlike world of Scriabin creating a magical atmosphere in which, as Maria Lettberg describes in her interview with Olaf Wilhelmer, reprinted in the brochure, he shows “the growth and decay of the personality in a symbolic plot”. Beginning with the merest touch on the piano’s keys Banter takes this theoretical being from birth to death finishing the same way. Along the way he reflects the strange world of Scriabin who once proclaimed “I am God”. Banter’s piece is one to return to many times and will repay close attention by slowly revealing itself as a truly amazing work that helps increase our understanding of Scriabin’s musical universe. A selection of Banter's orchestral music can be heard on Marco Polo 8.223860.

Manfred Kelkel’s Tombeau de Scriabine begins in a similarly whispered vein and once again gives voice to Scriabin’s view of the world in a richly yet delicately beautiful piece. Commissioned by Radio France in 1972 this work was originally created for orchestra and only later for piano. It makes for a powerful personal statement.

It is fitting to close such a disc examining the legacy of Scriabin with some music by Messiaen. He, in many ways seems like an extension or at least a musical soul-mate to Scriabin. The two composers certainly seemed to be on the same musical plane as each other which only serves to emphasise how ahead of his time Scriabin was. As The Scriabin Society of America say in their website biography his “later compositions explore harmony’s further reaches. It is thought by scholars, that had Scriabin lived beyond his brief 43 years, he would have preceded the Austrian school of duodecaphony, and Moscow would have become the center of atonality”. “Disciples” like Messiaen and Boulez seem in many ways to have taken the baton from Scriabin and proceeded towards the finish line in the relay that is musical development. It is fascinating to speculate as to how Messiaen’s music would have been viewed by Scriabin but one cannot help but imagine that it would have totally resonated with him. The two “movements” Lettberg has chosen to include from his Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus perfectly reflect the same unique realm that Scriabin created in which music takes on a truly ‘spiritual’ dimension that is outside religion. It speaks to us all in another but immediately and universally recognisable way. Listening to the music of Scriabin would certainly help the uninitiated to enter the world of Messiaen and appreciate what groundbreaking composers he and Scriabin were.

This is a thoroughly fascinating and hugely rewarding disc which I shall be returning to often. It shows what an outstanding pianist Maria Lettberg is and reveals that she can explore other composers than Scriabin. I hope that she may give us some more Messiaen as well as others soon.

Steve Arloff

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