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Alexander SCRIABIN (1872-1915)
Complete Études
3 Pièces for piano, Op. 2 (1893) [5:36]
12 Études for piano, Op. 8 (1894) [33:24]
4 Préludes Op. 22 (1897) [3:54]
8 Études, Op. 42 (1903) [16:29]
Quasi Valse, Op. 47 (1905) [1:49]
Étude Op. 49 No. 1 (1905) [0:49]
Étude Op. 56 No. 4 (1907) [0:35]
Poèmes, Op. 69 Nos. 1 & 2 (1913) [3:38]
Three Études Op. 65 (1912) [7:57]
Dmitri Alexeev (piano)
rec. 19-21 January 2009, 22-24 October 2010, Champs Hill, West Sussex

The veteran Russian pianist Dmitri Alexeev, now British based, has a fine track record with Scriabin. His recording of Prometheus with Muti and the Philadelphia Orchestra has long been highly esteemed (review review) and a more recent set of the Scriabin piano sonatas has also been well received. Here he tackles Scriabin’s Piano Études, which are very demanding sets of pieces. Apart from the Op.65 set these belong to Scriabin’s early and middle periods, in which he is still fairly close to Chopin. However, you can already hear the mature Scriabin developing, with the use of extreme keys, complex textures, frequent use of triplet rhythms, polyrhythms (5 against 3, 4 against 3 and so on), imperious summons and the kind of leaping skip characteristic of Scriabin’s music at all periods.

Alexeev immediately impresses with his rich full sound, subtle use of the pedal and considerable rhythmic freedom and use of rubato. These were apparently also characteristics of Scriabin’s own playing. He balances the chords well, spreading the bigger ones as Scriabin himself must have done since they often stretch to well over an octave and the composer had small hands. He negotiates the complex textures well, bringing out the parts which require it and relishing the often luscious harmony. In short, this is playing in the grand manner.

The Op. 8 set is really very close to Chopin, with some of the pieces echoing individual Chopin Études quite closely. In my notes I find I have often been as impressed by Alexeev’s delicacy as by his bravura. He leads up to and down from climaxes well and his technical expertise means that he can always maintain the shape of a piece however complex the texture.

Op. 42 is less derivative than the Op. 8 set but is also somehow less striking. This may be because nearly all the pieces are fast with only one lyrical number. You can hear the later manner beginning to come through with no 5, marked Affannato, and even more with no 6, based on a complex polyrhythm of five notes in the right hand against three in the left. Alexeev makes these sound easy, which they are certainly not, but which must be what was intended.

The two isolated Études of Op. 49 and Op. 56 are each part of sets in which the other items are not Études. They are each examples of Scriabin’s wish to create a kind of music which evokes flight, which he achieves partly by loosening the links with tonality so that the music is rootless.

The last set of Op. 65 belongs to Scriabin’s final period and the first two sound very strange indeed. Each of them is based on a specific interval in the right hand, respectively ninths, sevenths and fifths. Scriabin himself could not play the first, since the stretch was too great for his hand, and to add to the difficulty it needs a feathery lightness. The ear rapidly accepts the dissonant ninths as a new kind of timbre and settles into a new and angular world. The second is slower but does something similar with sevenths. The final Étude is much longer than the other two and features Lisztian climaxes as well as triplet figuration.

The Études together come to rather under an hour of music, so Alexeev adds in some miniatures. It is pleasant to hear the whole of the very early Op. 2 set of pieces together. The Quasi-Valse is one of those miniatures which Scriabin tossed off throughout his life, though this is the only one with this title. The Op. 69 Poèmes are wispy and fragile pieces, almost improvisatory, and very much in the late manner.

There are other sets of these Études, some with other pieces as well. I would particular like to commend Piers Lane’s elegant and refined set, now on Hyperion’s budget label Helios (review). But that is now over twenty years old, and Alexeev’s set, although apparently recorded some years ago, will do very well for anyone wanting a modern recording. The booklet is helpful on the Études but makes no mention of the other works on the disc and is in English only. The recording is clear and accommodates the big climaxes with ease.

Stephen Barber



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