Alexander SCRIABIN (1872-1915)
Complete Late Piano Music
James Kreiling (piano)
rec. 2015/17, Henry Wood Hall, London
ODRADEK ODRCD366 [77:04 + 52:38]
Scriabin’s piano works, like Chopin’s, are usually recorded in generic groups, in his case of Preludes, Studies, Poèmes (it doesn’t seem to work to call these pieces Poems), Sonatas and Mazurkas. However, here we have a recital concentrating on the late works, by which is here meant everything from the fifth sonata onwards. This is sensible, as these works have a great deal in common, developing, exploring and eventually extending Scriabin’s mature musical language. They come from the last eight years of his life, starting with the fifth sonata, which comes just before the Poem of Ecstasy of 1907, and continuing past Scriabin’s last orchestral work, Prometheus, which comes in 1910, about half way through this series of piano works. We also have the advantage of scooping up those works which do not fall into the main generic categories, namely the Morceaux Opp. 57 and 59, the Pièces Op. 56, the Danses Op. 73 and the solitary Feuillet d’album Op. 58.
James Kreiling has made a special study of Scriabin, by his own account having spent ten years studying these works and having written a doctoral dissertation on them. He also writes his own sleevenotes here, and very helpful they are too. In fact this recital is a real labour of love, as Kreiling conceived the project, raised the funds for it through crowd-sourcing and worked with Odradek, which is not your normal record company but an artistic-controlled non-profit making cooperative.
None of this would be significant if he were not also a pianist with the necessary technique to command these often very technically challenging works and able to convey their mystery, power and beauty. I immediately noticed the refinement of his sound, how often Scriabin asks for pianissimo or even ppp and how precisely these dynamic indications are observed. Kreiling also uses the sustaining pedal lightly and well, so that the sound shimmers and glows without getting muddy. His leggiero passages – and there are many of them – are fantastically light and airy. He can layer the texture, so that the theme comes out despite lots of filigree decoration above and grumbling bass below. He is not fazed by the polyrhythms. The way he plays the descending figures of fourths in the eighth sonata has to be heard to be believed. His hands are large enough to play the first of the Op. Op. 65 Studies, which is based on passages of ninths in the right hand and which I believe Scriabin himself could not play. There is also power when it is needed, though in general he is less interested in power than in subtlety. He does occasionally spread chords when this is not marked and once or twice I even caught slightly desynchronized right and left hand; however, this is not casual but deliberate and effective.
Kreiling does not play these pieces in chronological order but places them in a suitable order for listening, with each disc ending with a major work other than a sonata. The sonatas are, however, the backbone of this programme. The fifth sonata stands slightly apart from the rest of them: it is in the late style but is rather more blatant and crude in its writing than the rest of them, harking back rather more to the barn-storming style of the first three sonatas. However, this performance plays down those factors and successfully integrates its disparate sections. The sixth and ninth sonatas, which I consider the finest, come over really well, their special atmosphere of menace and fear being well conveyed. I am happy with the seventh and tenth too, and particularly enjoyed the flight passage towards the end of the tenth. Kreiling has a soft spot for the eighth, which I have always thought the weakest of the late ones: it is much the longest and, in my view, rather sprawls. He plays this with much verve and almost manages to hold it together.
I shall not discuss the shorter works in detail, but the same virtues are apparent in them as in the sonatas. My notes are full of comments about the delicacy of Kreiling’s playing and identify several works as gems. I have only two disappointments: one is the Poème-Nocturne Op. 61, which is half way to becoming a sonata but seems to me too long for its material, so I count it as one of Scriabin’s failures. The other, sadly, is Vers la flamme Op. 72, Scriabin’s last and most powerful Poème, which concludes the first disc. The opening is suitably menacing but as it develops it doesn’t crackle and burn as it does, for example, in Horowitz’s famous version. However, I am happy to say that the three Studies Op. 65 which conclude the second disc are marvellously done and make a fitting conclusion to a fine recital.
There are no direct rivals to this set that I am aware of. In the days of LPs I used to own a fine two-disc set of late Scriabin, from the sixth sonata onwards, by Mikhail Rudy. This has now been transferred to CD, coupled with Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an exhibition (Calliope 1528). I am also very fond of Paul Crossley’s more recent two-disc programme of the shorter late works, without the sonatas or the studies, and starting at Op. 51 (CRD3524). Kreiling’s recital has more works than either of these, is well recorded and thoroughly idiomatic and deserves every success.
Sonata No. 5, Op. 53 (1907) [12:41]
Deux Danses, Op. 73 (1914) [6:35]
Poème-Nocturne, Op. 61 (1912) [7:37]
Sonata No. 6, Op. 62 (1912) [13:03]
Deux Morceaux, Op. 59 (1910) [3:47]
Deux Poèmes, Op. 63 (1912) [3:13]
Sonata No. 7, Op. 64 (1912) [11:53]
Deux Poèmes, Op. 71 (1914) [4:17]
Cinq Préludes, Op. 74 (1914) [7:22]
Poème: Vers La Flamme, Op. 72 [6:27]
Deux Morceaux, Op. 57 (1908) [3:08]
Deux Préludes, Op. 67 (1913) [2:44]
Sonata No. 9, Op. 68 (1913) [9:13]
Deux Poèmes, Op. 69 (1913) [4:01]
Sonata No. 10, Op. 70 (1913) [13:34]
Quatre Pièces, Op. 56 (1908) [5:17]
Feuillet d’album, Op. 58 (1910) [1:51]
Sonata No. 8, Op. 66 (1913) [13:57]
Trois Études, Op. 65 (1912) [8:44]