Difficult artist easier to hear

The complex compositions of Alexander Scriabin are more widely available than ever before.

August 08, 1999|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

The music of Alexander Scriabin seems finally to have secured a toehold on the standard repertory. Major Western pianists now regularly perform many of his nine piano sonatas, once the almost exclusive province of Russian-born musicians, and several internationally prestigious conductors have recorded and continue to program his symphonic music.

Recordings of his music once barely merited mention in the Schwann catalog. That they now occupy more than three pages of the current catalog testifies to the efforts of conductors such as Pierre Boulez, Valery Gergiev and Gennady Rozhdestvensky -- all of whom have new CDs devoted in whole or part to Scriabin.

His music has never been an easy sell -- even during his own lifetime (1872-1915), when his champions in his native Russia included musicians as prominent as conductor Serge Koussevitsky and pianist-composer Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Even though Scriabin readily acknowledged the influence of Rimsky-Korsakov upon his early (1894-97) Piano Concerto in F-sharp minor, the older composer openly detested the work. On the copy of the score Scriabin sent him, Rimsky-Korsakov scribbled such comments as "To hell with this!"

The offense given by the concerto was nothing compared to that of such works as "The Poem of Ecstasy" (1907), which is filled with the mystical element that colored all Scriabin's later music.

The composer insisted that "The Poem of Ecstasy" reflected his intent "to possess the Cosmos as a man possesses a woman." Upon hearing this remark (after hearing the music itself), the ever-helpful Rimsky-Korsakov suggested that Scriabin was losing his mind.

He may indeed have been a little mad. Scriabin's last and greatest work, which was to be called a "Mystery," was to involve the end of the world and the emergence of a new race of men. Music, dance, poetry, colors and perfume would all be combined in the performance of the "Mystery," at the climax of which, Scriabin said, the walls of the universe would cave in.

"I shall not die," he added. "I shall suffocate in ecstasy after the 'Mystery.' "

Scriabin may not have been crazy, but in the ambience, phrasing and cadences of his music, we confront a world almost without skin -- a world of nerve endings, where the slightest touch brings either pain or pleasure.

His music is difficult because Scriabin's ideas are elusive and his grand plan unpredictable. He gives us a fraction of the musical information we need to make sense of his works as we do those of his contemporaries -- such as Rachmaninoff, whose Concerto No. 1 in F-sharp minor is a stablemate to the concerto in the same key by Scriabin -- or those of younger composers such as Stravinsky, whose "Firebird" owes a debt to "The Poem of Ecstasy."

Scriabin's late music sounds -- even today -- amazingly modern. He discarded key signatures and teetered on the brink of sheer atonality. On the page, the music is a black mass of sharps, flats, double sharps, double flats and naturals, fearsome-looking chords and all-but-unplayable pianistic figurations.

Even the Concerto in F-sharp minor -- which stays well within the Chopinesque idiom of Scriabin's early style and can be appreciated for its lyrical beauties and delicate, transparent scoring -- has innovative features. The solo part, though technically difficult, eschews conventional virtuosity -- there is not even a cadenza for the pianist.

But what must have confounded some of Scriabin's elders, such as Rimsky-Korsakov, was the constantly changing flow of the thematic ideas, themselves often diffuse and fragmentary, which seemed to reflect the quicksilver, vacillating mental processes of the composer himself.

Although one of the finest Russian concertos of the 19th century, the Scriabin F-sharp minor has been neglected on CD and in the concert hall. That makes it a pleasure to welcome two new recordings -- by pianist Anatol Ugorski and the Chicago Symphony, Pierre Boulez conducting (Deutsche Grammophon 289459647), and by Victoria Postnikova and her husband, Gennady Rozhdestvensky, conducting the Resident Orchestra of the Hague (Chandos 9728).

If compelled, I would chose the Ugorski-Boulez over the Postnikova-Rozhdestvensky. I prefer the piano playing of Postnikova, who is a great virtuoso, to that of Ugorski, who is not. But while the Postnikova-Rozhdestvensky is sometimes exquisite, it is often so impossibly slow that the musical line vanishes.

Ugorski, while a less remarkable pianist, understands Scriabin's style and is sensitive to nuance. Boulez, whom I would not have guessed to be sympathetic to this hyper-romantic music, gives him a magnificent accompaniment.

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