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Alexander SCRIABIN (1872-1915)
Symphony No. 1 in E major Op. 26 (1899-1900) [49:05]
Poem of Ecstasy Op. 54 (1907) [22:08]
Larissa Avdeyeva (mezzo); Anton Grigoriev (tenor); Lev Volodin (trumpet)
Republican Russian Choir/Alexander Yurlov
USSR Symphony Orchestra/Evgeni Svetlanov
rec. 1963/66. ADD
ALTO ALC1329 [71:13]

Alto have good connections. Their access to vintage analogue Melodiya tapes benefits those thirsty to recapture the LP experiences of yesteryear; in my case that's the 1960s and 1970s. That's certainly the case here. True, there was always the fiery Golovanov (Svetlanov's teacher) in 1950s mono but for most practical purposes Evgeni Svetlanov was early in the field. He brought non-USSR listeners into contact with the great spread of Scriabin orchestral recordings, and in stereo.

Here, the First Symphony - the least known of the three - together with the best known of all this composer's works, The Poem of Ecstasy, reappear in virile sound. These are vividly smouldering and at times flaming performances. Melodiya blazed a path for Scriabin way before the Western labels turned to Semkow, Inbal and Ashkenazy.

The First Symphony is an eccentric construct - more Liszt's Faust and Dante than anything else. The music, on the other hand, is surely an easier listen than Scriabin's Second and Third symphonies. Across a ground-plan of six movements this can be enjoyed, lofty as its aims may be, as a series of character tone poems. The ever reliable and readably accessible Jeffrey Davis in his English-only liner-note claims that the six are in effect a prelude and an epilogue framing a more conventionally structured four-movement work. There's quite a lot of brooding until we get to the fourth movement which is a sweetly tripping Vivace of only 3:20 but the Allegro stands out as the most masterly of the six. It's the last purely orchestral episode and makes good use of one of those themes that mixes aspiration, melancholia, fatigue and epic journeying. It drew me to the work and held me close over the years. Its almost Tchaikovskian way with themes and orchestra is perhaps related to the Manfred Symphony - that grand and irresistibly hopeless striving and joy in catastrophe.

The fact that the recording dates from 1963 is clear enough in the glare on the violin tone at anything from mf upwards. The brass warble magnificently in true Soviet style at 5:40 onwards. Indeed, the playing of the brass is one of the crowns of this recording.

The finale - lasting 12:43 - adds the vibrant voice of the Larissa Avdeyeva (1925-2013), star of many a Melodiya opera project, Svetlanov's wife and the singer in that conductor's recording of Elgar's Sea Pictures. There's also the not quite so prominent tenor, Anton Grigoriev. The romantic roles of these two singers are by no means under-sung as each rises to peaks of melting musical passion. They are nicely balanced by I. Veprintsev so as to sound assertive without sacrificing a satisfying meld with a potently rendered orchestra. There's a blaring blast of brass at 7:23 and at 8.44 the full choir joins in their Hymn to Art. As you may expect, they sound as if they mean it. Is there an Imperial aspect to the hymn, I wonder; it certainly feels that way.

The Poem of Ecstasy was premiered in New York in 1908. It is a much more consummate single-movement statement with Scriabin's style fully evolved. He is now at full stretch and stands proudly clear of any echoes of Tchaikovsky and of Scriabin's contemporary, Rachmaninov. Whatever Scriabin's philosophy and hopes for some grand meltdown of music, colour, bliss and apocalypse, the Poem works without extraneous props. The perfumed and numinous atmosphere is one thing but the ringing and completely un-PC trumpets - the solo trumpeter playing out his heart is Lev Volodin - give this work a great upblast of unrepentant glowering eloquence. Solo violin and the intercession of excited acolytes voiced by the full orchestra add a dangerously 'crowded hour'. It is no wonder that the almost impossible golden blare of the trumpets at 10:06 meant that this piece was played on Soviet radio when Yuri Gagarin's rocket was launched into space in 1961. This is a work that even at 22 minutes needs some tolerance from the listener, however its longueurs are compensated for by its theatricality. That's especially the case in this performance and recording. This is burnished music that scorches, blesses, incites and overwhelms.

Svetlanov had the measure of the Poem which also helped him in the early works of Miaskovsky. Speaking of other composers I do hope that some valiant company will issue as a single set Svetlanov's recordings of the three cantatas by the conductor's teacher, Yuri Shaporin. They have so far been studiously ignored and do not deserve to be lost: likewise, Miaskovsky's two cantatas.

Sadly, the sung words for the Symphony's finale are not given in the leaflet but can be found at Wikipedia.

Vivid, virile, vigorous, these trusty stereo recordings from fifty years ago are precious and exciting carriers of a possessed tradition and can now be had at Alto's bargain price.

Rob Barnett



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