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Alexander SCRIABIN (1872-1915)
Complete Preludes
Dmitri Alexeev (piano)
rec. 2017, Henry Wood Hall, London
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 95651 [56:51 + 63:43]

Dmitri Alexeev’s Scriabin cycle goes from strength to strength. The sonatas (Brilliant Classics 94388) were generally well received, though not reviewed on MWI. I was impressed by his set of Études (review) and now I have been completely blown away by this new set of the preludes. Alexeev seems the complete Scriabin pianist: he not only has the superb technique which is a necessity in these often very demanding pieces, he also knows how to shape them, how to clarify the complex textures with subtle voicing of the complex harmonies. His pedalling is fastidious, and he resists the temptation to drown the pieces in a wash of sound. He is capable of the massive pianism which the composer occasionally demands, but also of the subtlest pianissimo, and he can play the cross-rhythms in a way which seems natural.

Scriabin was drawn to this kind of short piece throughout his career, and there are no fewer than ninety of them in all. They fall into three periods. In the first period, 1888-96, he was very much under the influence of Chopin, and, like Chopin, he thought of writing a set of twenty-four pieces in all the major and minor keys – in fact two sets. The first set was published as his Opus 11, while the remainder came out in separate groups, thereby disguising the fact that there were only twenty-three of them. There is enormous imagination and variety in these pieces.

From Op. 22, which dates from 1897, you can hear Scriabin throwing off the influence of Chopin and beginning to develop his own personal style. The textures are usually simpler, key signatures are still used, cross rhythms become commoner and his characteristic leaping dotted figure is used more often. The harmony is not as strange as it was to become. Actually, many of these middle period preludes seem to me like sketches or drafts: ideas briefly worked out, as a preparation for something more substantial. This goes on up to Op. 39. Most of these pieces were written in 1903.

There is a sudden change in only the next year. Suddenly, with the single prelude from Op. 45, we are in the world of recognizable mature Scriabin: the rich and complex harmony in fourths, the snatching bass, the intense inward expressiveness and the hypnotically strange atmosphere are all here, and this continues up to Op. 59 of 1910.

Finally, with the two preludes of Op. 67 and the five of Op. 74, of 1912-4, we are in the very last period: intense, profound and tearing at the fabric of the music to express something almost inexpressible.

Alexeev seems to me to command all the qualities to realize these very varied works. Only once did I slightly demur. I thought he took Op. 74 No.2, which is marked ‘Très lent, contemplatif,’ a little too slowly. Otherwise I was captivated by his playing.

The recording, from the Henry Wood Hall, does justice to the performances. The booklet note, in English only, is unsigned but literate and helpful. There are other recordings of the Scriabin preludes, though not so many of the complete set; I cherish, in particular, the one by Piers Lane, now on Hyperion Helios (CDH55450-1), but that is now nearly twenty years old and not, I think, superior to this new one. We learn that Alexeev plans to record the Poèmes, Waltzes and Mazurkas this year. They are going to be worth looking out for.

Stephen Barber

Previous review: Michael Cookson

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