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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 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 the BIS 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 (review). Part of the problem with Gergiev is that he’s so unpredictable; just compare his magnificent account of Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony (review) 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 nonetheless.

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.

Dan Morgan