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 Chorus/Simon Halsey
London Symphony Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
rec. live, 30 March 2014 (1), 10 April 2014 (2), Barbican, London, UK. DSD 128fs
Reviewed as a Studio Master from Hyperion Records
Pdf booklet includes sung texts (Russian & English) LSO LIVE LSO0770 [2 SACDs: 91:09]
The Scriabin centenary may have been and gone, but
new recordings of the Russian mystic’s works still keep on coming.
True, it’s a trickle compared with, say, the steady flow of new
Sibelius releases, but then Scriabin’s fan base isn’t nearly
so broad. That said, Scriabin’s symphonic output has fared quite
well on record. Riccardo Muti’s EMI-Warner set with the Philadelphia
Orchestra – reissued by Brilliant
– is still a fine one. His performances are vast and voluptuous
and the sound is both wide-ranging and sumptuously trimmed. Then there’s
box with Leif Segerstam and the Stockholm Philharmonic. Generally direct
and unsentimental – and superbly recorded – these readings
have much to commend them.
I’d be content with either collection – preferably both,
for they illuminate different aspects of these distinctive and ambitious
scores – but then I was lucky enough to review Mikhail Pletnev
and the Russian National Orchestra’s accounts of the First and
Fourth symphonies (Pentatone).
Powerful and proselytizing, these performances are simply astonishing;
not only that, Polyhymnia’s tactile and sophisticated recording
is a wonder to behold. The real surprise, though, is Pletnev’s
total engagement with this music, not at all what I’d expected
from a conductor I often find a tad chilly; his recent disc of Tchaikovsky
marches and overtures is a case in point (review).
Two other Russians – Vasily Petrenko and Valery Gergiev –
have also taken on these symphonies, albeit with mixed results. Petrenko’s
Oslo recordings of Nos. 3 and 4, the start of a projected cycle, aren’t
nearly as radiant or far-reaching as the best in the catalogue (review).
The first instalment of Gergiev’s LSO series was even more disappointing
Part of the problem with Gergiev is that he’s so unpredictable;
just compare his magnificent account of Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony
with his fatally disengaged performance of the Third (review).
So it’s anyone’s guess which way he’ll jump here.
As Andrew Huth points out in his liner-notes Scriabin was fortunate
to count the musical all-rounder Vasily Safonov (1852-1918) among his
early champions. Even more fortuitous was the generous patronage of
Mirofan Belyayev (1836-1904), the businessman, philanthropist and founder
of the music group that bore his name. One of the early fruits of this
relationship was the six-movement First Symphony, whose initial performances
were not well received. Then again, that’s often the case with
visionaries, whose radicalism tends to antagonise those used to a steady
diet of what they know and like.
The opening movement of Gergiev’s First is certainly atmospheric;
there’s a decent pulse and the music has a truly intoxicating
scent. As so often with ambitious works such as this, balance is everything;
that means a sense of proportion – those mighty perorations need
to be judiciously scaled – and eroticism, while essential, cannot
be allowed to slip into turpitude. Remarkably, Gergiev gets it right;
even more impressive is the hear-through quality of this DSD recording,
subtly engineered by James Mallinson and his Classic Sound team.
The second movement, marked Allegro drammatico, is no less
assured. The finely calibrated playing of the LSO is a joy to hear;
they sound so idiomatic too. Gergiev is steady but never dull; he also
finds warmth and suppleness in the music, something I don’t hear
in his accounts of Nos. 3 and 4. Indeed, this is a good version to play
to those who think Scriabin is overlong and overblown. There’s
a clear, unwavering narrative here, and the luminous recording makes
the most of Scriabin’s giddy colours. Even more striking is the
palpable sense of destination, of impending apotheosis, of a musical
and emotional vortex that’s impossible to escape.
The Lento is a rich, seamless beauty, and the sound and instrumental
blend are as sophisticated as it gets. Any caveats? Well, the conductor’s
grunts are very audible in quiet passages, but then that’s a given
with Gergiev. The little Vivace is nicely pointed – just
savour those splendid pizzicati – and the Allegro
is well shaped. It’s only when one experiences the sheer magnetism
of Pletnev’s performance that Gergiev seems less compelling at
times. It’s a momentary loss of focus, merely, and it poses no
danger to overall tension and progress.
Scale and balance are particularly important in the choral finale. Muti,
a veteran of the opera house, has a flair for drama, and that shines
through here. I fear he has the better soloists too, but there’s
no denying Gergiev’s ability to maintain a sense of imminent -
and explosive - release. Simon Halsey’s ideally distant singers
sound genuinely ecstatic, and Gergiev brings it all to a superbly controlled
climax. The earth certainly moved for me, and I daresay it will for
you, too. Not in Pletnev’s league, perhaps, but a memorable night
Having made amends with that compelling performance, how does Gergiev
cope with Scriabin’s more conventional Op. 29? It’s in five
movements, the first two and the last two played without a break. In
Gergiev’s hands it comes across as a lucid and surprisingly muscular
piece; indeed, if the First is feminine in feeling the Second is resolutely
masculine. The Andante and Allegro are despatched
with confidence, but for some reason the recording lacks that elusive
sense of a live event. Still, the tuttis have plenty of punch and inner
details are easily discerned. Pacing in the Allegro is brisk
and contrasts are sharply drawn.
I must confess the Second is not my favourite Scriabin symphony. I find
it rather bluff at times; also, there’s less ear-pricking invention
– less daring – compared with his Op. 26. Not only that,
Gergiev’s approach can seem like a series of discrete shots rather
than a long, seamless take. That said, the lovely Andante has
both poise and pulse; what a pity, then, that the conductor’s
vocalising is so intrusive at this point. In spite of my reservations
this remains a vital and engaging performance, winningly played and
very well recorded.
The Tempestoso and Maestoso strike me as the most
Tchaikovskian segments of the symphony; they’re also the most
prone to bombast, but that’s more Scriabin’s fault than
Gergiev’s. Even the composer admitted he’d misjudged the
finale, which he described as ‘a military parade’. That
analogy holds true in this performance, but thanks to a robust pace
and sense of purpose Gergiev’s endgame isn’t as banal as
some. In any event the LSO sound like they’re having a terrific
time, the brass and drums especially.
As if doing his best to distinguish the Second from its more sensuous
brethren Segerstam gives us a cool and refreshing account of this symphony.
He’s leaner, loftier and he delivers the music in a single, unbroken
span. Muti is frankly overstuffed by comparison. Listeners might also
want to try Neeme Järvi and the RSNO in this work (Chandos CHAN8462).
Bold and energetic as that performance is I just don’t find it
very engaging or idiomatic. Gergiev is more cogent and satisfying on
almost every level. No, it’s Segerstam who has it all: insight,
an unrivalled sense of the work’s architecture and – a welcome
bonus – scruff-grabbing sonics.
A passionate Scriabin First and a very decent Second from Valery Gergiev
and the LSO; the sound ranges from excellent to superb.
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