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Alexander SCRIABIN (1872-1915)
The Complete Poèmes
Garrick Ohlsson (piano)
rec. 2013, Henry Wood Hall, London, UK
HYPERION CDA67988 [79:46]

A recent BBC Radio 3 trailer for its “Composer of the Week” feature on Scriabin ended with a set of rhetorical questions about the composer ending “… or was he, as some thought, just plain bonkers?” Scriabin had his personal eccentricities, but that does not explain a widespread tendency to dismiss the ideas behind his music such as Symbolism and Theosophy as vacuous and irrelevant to enjoying the music today. But those ideas were once influential in fin-de-siècle Russia and beyond, and in the words of the expert on Russian music and culture Richard Taruskin “Scriabin … consciously modified his style so as to enable the music to serve the spiritualistic purposes his religious and philosophical beliefs demanded.” In other words the ideas can be a key to what as Scriabin’s career progressed becomes an increasingly elusive style for many listeners. No one dismisses Symbolist ideas as a helpful key to Bartók’s Bluebeard Castle or Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, so why would we do so for Scriabin? A disc offering Scriabin’s “Complete Poèmes” for solo piano is a good place to explore these matters, especially when the notes expound those background ideas so and the pianist is so inside the idiom.

Thus one of the better known of these pieces is the late Vers la flamme (‘Towards the flame’). The flame of the title, according to Simon Nicholls’s typically illuminating booklet notes, is that “ocean of fire which engulfs and remakes the universe in Scriabin’s mythology” which in turn is portrayed in “its extreme thematic economy, its vivid symbolism, and its unbroken line of ascent.” Garrick Ohlsson reveals all this and more in the almost six minutes it takes to travel, in the composer’s phrase, “from clouds to blinding light.” Two great Russian pianists and Scriabin exponents of the past - Horowitz who aged 11 played for the composer, and Sofronitzky who married the composer’s daughter – made sensational recordings of this work, but Ohlsson need fear no comparisons. He has the technique for this music and sounds entirely in sympathy with it.

These Poémes are all very brief – most are between one and two minutes long, the shortest is 30 seconds, the longest 6:46 – ‘poems’ they may be, but more haiku than epic ballad. The pianist has to distil the essential mood within a very few bars, as Ohlsson does from the outset, opening the disc with a limpidly lyrical treatment of the andante cantabile of Op.32 No.1 in F sharp, its whimsical arabesques almost Debussyan in flavor. The first larger work on the disc, the Poème satanique does indeed sound the devil to play, with its recall of Liszt in his Mephisto mood, and its final virtuoso flourish, which Ohlsson despatches with the élan familiar from his superb pair of Liszt discs on Bridge.

As you can see from the following track list not every item is called a poème – the compilation is less doctrinaire than the Hyperion issues (with Piers Lane) of the Études and Préludes in this respect. The complete Poèmes are here, but several pieces with other titles are included (Morceaux, Danses, Feuillets d’album) to make a generous playing time close to eighty minutes. The disc, which has the pieces in chronological order so that Scriabin’s stylistic development can be followed easily, ends with the Deux Danses Op.73, his penultimate composition. Scriabin referred to these as having “sweetness to the point of pain” and called the second dance, titled Flammes sombres, “very mischievous music” since “here the eroticism is already unhealthy, a perversion”. The cover art reflects something of this, and so does Ohlsson’s playing. Not that it contains anything that can be called perversion, but there is plenty of sweetness, languor, and flickering fire both here and throughout. There could be more Scriabin to come from Ohlsson, as he has broadcast a pair of Scriabin recitals from London’s Wigmore Hall. Perhaps they will appear on the “Wigmore Hall Live” label in due course – to judge from the one I heard on 27 April, they would certainly be welcome. Meantime there is plenty of fascinating material and playing on this disc to be going on with.

Dan Morgan recently reviewed the download of this issue very favourably on MusicWeb International, preferring it to Pascal Amoyel’s rival La Dolce Volta disc. The recently deceased International Record Review praised it also, but felt that the ‘cushioned’ piano sound was better for Brahms or Schumann and preferred that given to Joseph Villa on Dante in 1989. Be that as is may, you will find here the usual high quality of piano sound long associated with Hyperion.

The liner-note for the famous LP of Scriabin which Horowitz recorded in 1972 asked “Is it possible that Scriabin, that mystical mad genius who evolved a musical language all his own, has finally made it?” The answer, in that year of the centenary of his birth, turned out to be “no”. Perhaps this year’s centenary of his death will change that. More discs of this quality will surely help.

Roy Westbrook

Previous review: Dan Morgan
Deux poèmes. Op. 32 (1903)
No. 1 in F sharp major: Andante cantabile [3:21]
No. 2 in D major: Allegro, con eleganza, con fiducia [1:40]
Poème tragique, Op. 34 (1903) [3:28]
Poème satanique, Op 36 (1903) [6:32]
Poème, Op. 41 (1903) [4:46]
Deux poèmes, Op. 44 (1905)
No. 1 Lento [1:27]
No. 2 Moderato [1:16]
Trois morceaux, Op. 45 (1905)
No. 1 Feuillet d'album: Andante piacevole [1:08]
No. 2 Poème fantasque: Presto [0:30]
Scherzo, Op. 46 (1905) [1:29]
Quasi valse, Op. 47 (1905) [1:34]
Trois morceaux, Op. 49 (1905)
No. 3 Rêverie: Con finezza [1:25]
Quatre morceaux, Op. 51 (1906)
No. 1 Fragilité: Allegretto [2:32]
No. 3 Poème ailé [1:18]
No. 4 Danse languide [1:42]
Trois morceaux, Op. 52 (1906)
No. 1 Poème: Lento [2:35]
No. 2 Énigme: Étrange, capricieusement [1:10]
No. 3 Poème languide: Pas vite [1:23]
Quatre morceaux, Op. 56 (1908)
No. 2 Ironies: Vivo, scherzoso [2:17]
No. 3 Nuances: Fondu, velouté [2:06]
Deux morceaux, Op. 57 (1908) [4:24]
No. 1 Désir [2:17]
No. 2 Caresse dansée [2:07]
Feuillet d'album, Op. 58 (1909) [1:11]
Deux morceaux, Op. 59 (1910)
No. 1 Poème: Allegretto, avec grâce et douceur [1:59]
Poème-nocturne, Op. 61 (1911) [6:46]
Deux poèmes, Op. 63 (1912)
No. 1 Masque: Allegretto [1:27]
No. 2 Étrangeté: Gracieux, délicat [2:00]
Deux poèmes, Op. 69 (1913)
No. 1 Allegretto [2:10]
No. 2 Allegretto [1:35]
Deux poèmes, Op. 71 (1914)
No. 1 Fantastique [1:43]
No. 2 En rêvant, avec une grande douceur [1:53]
Vers la flamme 'Poème', Op. 72 (1914) [5:47]
Deux danses, Op. 73 (1914)
No. 1 Guirlandes: Avec une grâce languissante [2:59]
No. 2 Flammes sombres: Avec une grâce dolente [2:13]