Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915) must have seemed strange to his contemporaries although today his eccentricities probably wouldn't seem too out-of-place. His fantasy world was extreme, his imagination vivid. Evolving from the writings of Nietzsche, Prince Trubetskoy and Wagner, Scriabin's philosophy eventually developed into his own mystical concept of life and art, known as Orphism, "the rites and religion ascribed to Orpheus as founder." Orpheus was a poet-musician with "magic musical powers" who descended into the underworld in an unsuccessful attempt to bring back his wife Euyrdice. Scriabin wanted to glorify "Art as a religion, particularly in his symphonic works. Scriabin attempted to depict the human soul freeing itself from material bondage by ceaseless creative activity to reach what Scriabin called "divine play" as the soul reaches its fullest expression. A fine pianist, Scriabin gave many concerts often featuring his own works. Although he composed primarily for the piano, he also was a master of orchestration.
Scriabin considered himself to be a "Messiah," an inspired bringer of enlightenment to humanity. His goal was to write a final symphonic work to be called "The Mystery," which would be a massive religious/artistic event combining all of the senses in a supreme and final ecstasy. This grandiose work would reflect the history of the universe, the human race and the human mind. The music's presentation would be its fulfillment, not its performance. This "monster concert" would feature all of Scriabin's orchestral works (no music of other composers, of course!!) performed in chronological order with thousands of musicians -- presumably color keyboards as well, to be performed on the highest peaks of the Himalayan mountains. (Don't even begin to think of logistics of such an event!). After the performance the human race would disappear, to be replaced by another group of beings "higher and nobler." Details of how this would be accomplished were not explained in the overall scheme of things.
Scriabin expressed his ideas initially in his Symphony No. 1 (1899-1900), scored for tenor and soprano soloists and chorus; Symphony No. 2 (1901), and Symphony No. 3 (1902-4) subtitled "The Divine Poem." In 1905 Scriabin began to compose his Poem of Ecstasy, which he elected to call his Symphony No. 4 even though it is stretching the definition of the form to the extreme to label a work such as this a "symphony." Scriabin seldom gave a concise programmatic description of his music, but he did write in rather vague terms about Poem. Scriabin described three sections: (l) his soul in the orgy of love, (2) the realization of a fantastic dream, and (3) the glory of his own art. He also wrote a long poem to accompany the music although not to be heard over it. The poem ends with, "I am a moment illuminating eternity....I am affirmation...I am ecstasy." In his biography of Scriabin, A. Eaglefield Hull describes Poem of Ecstasy as follows: in the first section, we find "human striving after the ideal" with "the Ego theme gradually realizing itself. The principal theme of the main section is associated with "the soaring flight of the spirit," the second theme, for solo violin, with "human love," and the third, for solo trumpet, with "the will to rise up." Varied emotions are expressed in the music: tragedy, stress, defiance, charm, pleasure and ecstasy. Towards the end, the trumpet becomes bolder and more majestic, abetted by other brass. The Epilogue is of immense power and triumphant grandeur, with tolling orchestral bells and heavy organ underpinning. To guide conductors, the score has such designations as molto languido ("as languid as possible"), très parfumé ("very perfumed"), avec une noble et joyeuse émotion ("with a lofty and joyous emotion"), avec une volupté de plus en plus extatique ("with a sensual pleasure even more rapturous" ), and charmé ( "beguiled") -- plus more common indications including "dramatic," "languishing," "tragic," "delirium" and "majestic."
After Poem, Scriabin wrote Prometheus ("The Poem of Fire"), which he considered to be his Symphony No. 5 although it is no more a symphony than its predecessor. Written in 1910, it was the composer's last completed orchestral work, almost a piano concerto with its prominent part for that instrument, although the pianist functions as part of the orchestra rather than as a soloist. Perhaps this is the ultimate in Scriabin's attempt to link the actual and the supernatural. In an attempt to achieve this, a chorus vocalizes on specific vowels with an occasional aspirate, and an optional color keyboard controls colored lights to be displayed throughout the auditorium, an effect written into the score but seldom used in performance.
In 1913, just two years before his death, Scriabin started work on what he intended to be his final crowning masterpiece -- "The Mystery" -- the first part of which was to be called "Prefatory Act," but he left only 53 pages of sketches for his magnum opus, plus two versions of an incomplete poetic text. Russian composer Alexander Nemtin (1936 - 1999) had enormous empathy with Scriabin's music and completed "Prefatory Act" using Scriabin's sketches as well as some of his piano preludes and Sonata No. 8, scoring the work, in line with Scriabin's intentions for full orchestra, mixed choir, piano, organ and color keyboard. "Prefatory Act" is prefaced by an epigraph from the first version of Scriabin's text:
The ardor of instance gives birth
The work was dedicated to Kiril Kondrashin who conducted the premiere
and made a recording at the same time, once available on an Angel/Melodiya LP. There is a live recording made April 3, 1995 with the Russian State Orchestra
and Ostankino Radio Chorus directed by Igor Golovchin (Triton 17 001), and Decca
has just issued a new recording with Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Berlin Radio
Symphony. (289 466).
LEOPOLD STOKOWSKI RECORDINGS
There have been many recordings of Poem of Ecstasy. The first was Leopold Stokowski's pioneering 78 rm set of March 15, 1932 with a reduced Philadelphia Orchestra, available in a fine transfer by Ward Marston on Pearl ( GEMM 9066, PT: 17:13).
Leopold Stokowski performed Poem of Ecstasy often and, in addition to his early Victor recording in Philadelphia, recorded it in 1959 with the Houston Symphony (Everest EVC 9037, PT: 19:14).
There are three live performances, one from June 18, 1968 with the New Philharmonia Orchestra now available on BBC Legends (BBCL 4018, PT: 19:22 -- see review). Another performance a year later (June 15 1969) is also from the BBC, with the Royal Philharmonic issued on Music & Arts (M&A CD 847, PT: 18:04). This same performance also has been issued in the BBC Legends series transferred from the master tapes (BBCL 4069) (see review).
The third is a live performance with the Czech Philharmonic recorded in June 1972 issued in London's Phase Four series (443 898, PT: 19:05). The Czech Philharmonic version is atypical of London's Phase Four series; the important trombone interjections are virtually inaudible although organ sound is impressive. Supposedly recorded live, it is apparent this is put together from rehearsals as well as the concert performance.
The Boston Symphony recording that should have remained in the catalog is Claudio Abbado's 1971 version (DG 415 370, TT: 19:29), which finds the conductor more emotionally involved than usual. Stereo sound is exceptionally good, presumably Voisin is the superb trumpet soloist (although not credited), and the organ in Symphony Hall provides the rich low bass sound in the final climax that doubtless was Scriabin's intent. Reissue of this DG recording seems rather unlikely as the label has two new recordings, one recorded in 1995 with Pierre Boulez and the Chicago Symphony (DG 459 647, TT: 21:59), the other with Pletnev and the Russian National Orchestra recorded in 1996 (DG 459 681, TT: 19:30).
Boulez offers a chaste, sedate view of Poem; no passion here. Adolph Herseth, principal trumpet of the CSO, is magnificent, but the conductor's overall approach is analytical to the extreme and he is timid where he should be passionate. Engineering doesn't help; this was recorded in Medinah Temple, usually a problem for any engineering team. The sound is clear but rather bland. (DG 459 647)
DG is infinitely more successful in every way in their new recording with Mikhail Pletnev and the Russian National Orchestra. Pletnev is an enigma to me; his Tchaikovsky Pathétique on Virgin Classics was superb but the promise was not carried out in his later complete DGG set of all of the Tchaikovsky symphonies with the same orchestra. However, he is perfectly in tune with the eroticism of Poem. Strong accents and passionate dynamic accelerations occur often, the orchestra is first-rate, outstanding sonics, too. (DG 459 681)
A DGG recording by Giuseppe Sinopoli's with the New York Philharmonic (coupled with Symphony No. 1)(427 324) has been discontinued. Sinopoli is at his best in the luxurious textures of Scriabin's score and the recording is appropriately rich with Philip Smith's brilliant trumpet solos prominent. Andreas Juffinger is credited as organist although his contribution -- obviously dubbed in -- doesn't lend the rock-solid foundation the final pages demand.
Riccardo Muti recorded all five Scriabin symphonies with the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1985/90 for EMI issued in a 3-CD set (54251, PT: 20:02). Poem was recorded at the end of the series; how unfortunate that EMI always was so unsuccessful in capturing the sound of this orchestra. Recorded in Memorial Hall in Philadelphia's Fairmount Park, the sound lacks richness and definition. I recall a broadcast many years ago of one of the Scriabin symphonies when the PO was on tour; even on a radio broadcast it sounded better than these studio recordings. Muti's concept of Scriabin and the superb orchestral playing deserve better sonics than those provided by EMI.
Neeme Järvi's Chandos version with the Chicago Symphony was recorded in Orchestra Hall. Jarvi is made to order for music such as this (too bad he didn't record Gliere's Ilya Murometz in Chicago as once planned); Chandos' engineers did what they could in this problematic hall. Bright sound accentuates upper percussion, the predictable Herseth trumpet brilliance is always apparent, but the sound lacks weight. Järvi's interpretation is imaginative, with an appropriate long pause before the final pages. How unfortunate sound isn't of the quality of the late '50s/early '60s Reiner recordings in the same venue! Järvi's recording is in a Chandos twin-CD set that also contains Symphonies 2 and 3, and Rêverie (241-5, PT: 19:43).
STILL MORE RECORDINGS.....
A magnificent performance recorded at a concert April 14, 1990 features the USSR Symphony Orchestra directed by Evgeny Svetlanov (Russian Disc CD 11 056, PT: 22:05), coupled with the First Symphony). Wild and wooly, either the conductor or the engineers emphasize the distinctive sound of Russian brass, and this is the longest recording ever made of the piece. Unfortunately the sound is somewhat distorted in climaxes, but this is a grand-scale interpretation. Svetlanov made a Melodiya recording of this with the same orchestra once issued on an Angel LP; I don't know if that is the same one record live at the Moscow Conservatory in February 1977 issued briefly in 1999 on BMG/RCA's Melodiya series in a 2-CD set that contained Poem, the Piano Concerto (with Alexei Nasedkin) and Symphonies 2 and 3 (BMG 66980 - n.l.a.). No question, this is one of the best Poems ever, if you can find it. Another live Russian recording is by Evgeni Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic recorded in April of 1959, released on a now deleted Russian Disc (CD 10 900, PT: 20:24). Surely one of the top recordings of the work, but plagued in the first minute by audience sounds - there must have been an incredible flu epidemic that season in Moscow. If you can find a copy, it is well worth owning. The couplings are Liadov's Baba Yaga and Prokofiev's Symphony No. 6, both recorded at the same concert.
Lorin Maazel's 1978 Cleveland Orchestra recording is among the best, with a sense of urgency, stunning trumpet solos, impressive tam-tams, and a fine organ during the final pages. This is part of a fine Scriabin CD that also contains Prometheus and the Piano Concerto with Vladimir Ashkenazy as soloist in both (London 417 252, PT: 18:33). Eliahu Inbal's recording on Philips with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra (Philips 454 271, PT: 18:21) underplays important trumpet and trombone statements, although the overall warm sonic picture is to the score's advantage. There is a live performance recorded in 1983 with the USSR TV and Radio Large Symphony Orchestra directed by Vladimir Fedoseyev (Audiophile Classics APL 101.517, PT: 15:36). This is the fastest of all, rather exciting in its own way, but missing grandeur of the score. There was an early stereo recording on LP with Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic on London that, if memory serves, was very fine -- but this has long since disappeared and never was issued on CD.
A recent Philips recording with Valery Gergiev and the Kirov Orchestra (coupled with The Rite of Spring) (468 035) adds little to the extase catalog. Brass is understated and Gergiev puts in unnecessary pauses where they aren't written or needed omitting the one just before the final pages where it is. (See REVIEW)
WHICH ONE TO OWN? The ideal performance - with sonic quality to match - is yet to come. For me the closest to perfection is either Golonov's or Svetlanov's, but the distorted sonic quality of the former is disturbing, and Svetlanov's 1977 recording is hard to find. Stokowski's 1968 New Philharmonia version is surely among the select group, as is his 1969 recording with the Royal Phil. Pletnev's DG recording is brilliant in conception and execution. Last year's Live! at the Concertgebouw series included a performance by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Peter Eotvos that was quite extraordinary -- but this is not a commercial recording. I look forward to a recorded performance that would offer massive bells and organ in the final pages. It hasn't appeared yet.