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Alexander SCRIABIN (1872-1915)
Symphony No. 1 in E major, Op.26 (1899-1900) [50:08]
Symphony No. 2 in C minor, Op. 29 (1901) [41:01]
Ekaterina Sergeeva (mezzo) & Alexander Timchenko (tenor)
London Symphony Orchestra & London Symphony Chorus, cond. Valery Gergiev
rec. 30 March 2014 (No.1) and 10 April 2014 (No.2), Barbican, London, UK
LSO LIVE LSO0770 [2 SACDs 91:09]

Symphony No. 3 in C minor Op. 43 'The Divine Poem' [44:23]
Symphony No. 4 Op. 54 'The Poem of Ecstasy' [20:35]
London Symphony Orchestra, cond. Valery Gergiev
rec. 30 March 2014 (No.4) and 14 April 2014 (no.3) Barbican, London, UK
LSO LIVE LSO0771 [64:58]

In striking contrast to his piano music, Alexander Scriabin’s symphonies obstinately resist entry to the mainstream. Ask a music lover to list the major Russian symphonists, and Scriabin will come way down the list, after even Borodin or Glazunov, if not after Balakirev or Miaskovsky. He is not mentioned in the same breath as Tchaikovsky or Prokofiev or Shostakovich, and live cycles such as that recorded here, have certainly been a rarity in the UK. This is less true of the “Poems” (numbers 3 and 4), especially the latter or “Poem of Ecstasy” which, as a 20-minute one-movement symphonic poem fits well into concert programmes – and is not usually titled ‘Symphony No.4’ except sometimes as a bracketed afterthought.

Gergiev’s discs came out separately this year and last, and derive from LSO Barbican concerts given in the spring of 2014. It is a successful and idiomatic cycle, as you might expect, but it is helpful that you can currently buy the discs separately, since the issue containing the first two symphonies is possibly the more valuable addition to the catalogue.

Scriabin’s epic Symphony No.1 was virtually his first orchestral work, and that shows at times. It is far from consistently achieved but there is still plenty to enjoy. It consists of six movements, whose varied moods are splendidly brought out here by some committed playing from the LSO. In the big choral finale the symphony reaches a stirring conclusion. There is very little vocal music by Scriabin, who for this work wrote his own text eulogizing the power of art: “Come, all peoples of the world, let us sing the praises of Art! Glory to Art, Glory forever!” This is beautifully sung by the two excellent soloists, mezzo Ekaterina Sergeeva and tenor Alexander Timchenko, and by the London Symphony Chorus.

The second symphony is often described as containing aspects of the music of Richard Strauss, Tchaikovsky and Wagner, but surely owes as much to Scriabin’s increasingly personal sound world. It too was initially planned to have a vocal finale, but the composer was dissuaded from that. Its five movements cohere into a structure more convincing than in No.1. There is some exotic harmonic colouring and quite a few passages of fierce intensity. The brooding andante opening has a preludial feel to it, as it leads straight into a fiery second movement. The central slow movement has the best music, increasingly suggestive of the later Scriabin’s hothouse mysticism. There is fine playing again, especially in the evocative woodwind solos. Gergiev sounds to me to be very fond of the work, such is the sense he gives of passionate engagement with music throughout, which often really takes flight in this account. Marina Frolova-Walker, the Russian music authority, referred to this disc on BBC Radio 3 as having “not very good music at times…needing a lot of help from the conductor”, but adding “Gergiev turns them into masterpieces.” If he does not quite achieve that, he is certainly a very persuasive advocate indeed.

With the later works on the second issue, there is far more competition and Gergiev gives good accounts even if he does not quite trump his rivals. With the third symphony or “Divine Poem” he is his own rival, since there was a concert recording with the Leningrad Philharmonic in 1989, which came out in 1995 on an obscure label called “Leningrad Classics”. That is very good, especially the orchestral playing, and the interpretation is quite similar, but Gergiev sounds even more authoritative in London a quarter of century later.

The short lento prelude of the Divine Poem is imposing, with very ‘present’ brass recording, and so is the ensuing main section (“luttes” or “struggles”). Its alternation of striving and reflective passages is very well characterised and always kept flowing. The slow movement is titled “VoluptÚs”, for which the booklet offers the usual coy translation of “delights”. But the sensual music, as unfolded by Gergiev, suggests a more literal translation, for Eros seems to be the presiding spirit. Or maybe it should be ‘Eros in Arcadia’, for the birdsong passages are superbly evoked by the LSO winds, all dappled light and shade. The finale sees the conductor revelling in the huge orchestra at times, but with a firm grip on the direction of the piece.

This version of the “Poem of Ecstasy” has many of those same qualities, with exquisite languor and delicacy where required, punctuated by some powerful climaxes. The playing is fine throughout, and in this piece the solo trumpet sometimes leads the orchestra, and is especially fine (presumably the superb Philip Cobb). Gergiev, as elsewhere in the set, adds the odd vocal contribution, but that is not too intrusive – at least he sounds totally absorbed in his task. The Barbican sound is a touch constricted as ever, which tends to constrain the biggest climaxes, but is otherwise more than serviceable.

I am a bit mystified at some of the early lukewarm (or worse) notices given to these issues (though not by my MusicWeb colleagues, please note), as they make a strong collection of idiomatic performances, thrilling at times, and quite acceptably recorded, in the sense that the engineers have caught the characteristics of the venue. The brief notes by Andrew Huth are a useful addition, and the discs can be bought separately. That will be especially useful if you already possess a good single disc coupling, like Pletnev’s on DGG, the 3rd symphony and the Poem of Ecstasy, for the versions of symphonies 1 and 2 are superb here. If you are looking for a complete set, then there are the other well established sets by Ashkenazy and Muti, which are also very fine and each boasts an acoustic better suited to Scriabin’s world-embracing aesthetic (and towering climaxes). But Gergiev has great strengths too, and his Scriabin might yet come to stand as one of the highlights of his tenure as Principal Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra.

Roy Westbrook

Previous reviews
Symphonies 1 & 2: Dan Morgan ~ Michael Cookson
Symphonies 3 & 4: Dan Morgan ~ Michael Cookson



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