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Alexander SCRIABIN (1872-1915)
Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Le Divin Poème, Op. 43 (1902-1904) [44:22]
Poème de l’extase, Op. 54 (Symphony No. 4) (1905-1908) [20:35]
London Symphony Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
rec. live, March and April 2014, Barbican, London, UK
Reviewed as a 24/96 download from Hyperion
Pdf booklet included
LSO LIVE LSO0771 SACD [64:58]

Watching Gergiev conduct – those fluttering fingers in particular - I always wonder how orchestras can be certain of his beat. That sense of mild apprehension applies to his recordings too; either he storms to the top of the charts – his recent LSO Live Rachmaninov Second Symphony is now among the finest in the catalogue – or he delivers a reading that’s unforgivably perverse. His Rachmaninov Third belongs firmly in the latter category. Which left me wondering where he would go with this new Scriabin series, surely one of his last as principal conductor of the LSO. More important, perhaps, is how his readings of these two symphonies compare with those of Vasily Petrenko and the Oslo Philharmonic (review).

As regular readers will know I regard Riccardo Muti’s classic Scriabin, with the Philadelphia Orchestra in incandescent form, as my go-to box for these works (Warner and Brilliant Classics). Leif Segerstam and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic (BIS) have their moments too, but if the first instalment of Mikhail Pletnev’s Pentatone cycle with the Russian National Orchestra is anything to go by both sets could soon be swept aside. As for Petrenko his tenure in Oslo has only just begun, which may be one reason why his Scriabin 3 and 4 lack conviction and character.

Scriabin needs firm advocacy and a judicious hand if his sprawling works aren't to buckle under the weight of their ambition and scale. Muti, a natural when it comes to big dramatic gestures, gets the balance right most of the time; not only that, he knows just how this music should sound. It helps that nis Memorial Hall recordings are so rich and dynamic. Alas, such attributes are harder to come by at the Barbican, which is notorious for its ungrateful acoustic. That's certainly the case on record, although I can think of a number of fine LSO Live releases that buck this trend. The question is, which way will this one go?

Gergiev's Third starts poetically enough, but after the Lento – Luttes it becomes rather prosaic - routine, even. I'm all too familiar with this highly variable maestro's work, but I didn't expect him to modulate to the key of humdrum so soon. Yes, there are some lovely, exotic sounds in Voluptés, but there’s also a creeping sense of coagulation that both Muti and Segerstam manage to avoid. Gergiev seems just too detached here, which is fatal in such immersive repertoire. That same air of disconnection pervades Jeu divin, although Gergiev does spur his players on to a pretty exciting close. As if this weren't dispiriting enough the recording is dry and the presentation seems rather flat. I imagine the multichannel mix would address the latter issue.

What an inauspicious start; and I'm afraid it doesn’t get any better. Gergiev’s Poème de l’extase - crude and disjunctive - is everything this lambent music shouldn't be. At least the solo trumpet at the start has presence and a hint of headiness – Petrenko’s Poème is particularly disappointing in this regard - but otherwise the performance remains earthbound. The sound isn't very ingratiating either. Like Petrenko - but unlike Muti, Segerstam and Pletnev - Gergiev seems to have chosen the optional harmonium at the end; I say 'seems' because you'd be hard-pressed to tell it was there at all.

It's all so frustrating. Perhaps Petrenko and Gergiev have tried to avoid a well-upholstered approach here, but in the process they’ve knocked the stuffing out of these sumptuous symphonies. At this point Muti is still sans pareil in the Third and Pletnev is the new benchmark in the Fourth. In fact the latter performance, coupled with an equally fine account of the First, is likely to be one of my Recordings of the Year.

Gergiev’s Scriabin fails to enchant or excite; the featureless recording doesn’t help.

Dan Morgan



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