DEBUSSY: The Fall of the House of Usher. CAPLET: Conte fantastique (“The Masque of the Red Death”) for Harp and String Orchestra. SCHMITT: Étude for “The Haunted Palace.”

DEBUSSY: The Fall of the House of UsherChristine Barbaux, soprano (Lady Madeline); Jean-Philippe Lafoint, baritone (Roderick); Pierre-Yves Le Maigat, baritone (The Friend); Francois Le Roux, baritone (The Doctor). CAPLET: Conte fantastique (“The Masque of the Red Death”) for Harp and String Or­chestra. Frederique Cambreling, harp. SCHMITT: Étude for “The Haunted Palace.” Monte Carlo Philharmonic conducted by Georges Pretre. ANGEL DS-38168 (digital), produced by Eric MacLeod.

This is a record sure to interest admirers of the writings of Edgar Allan Poe, not to men­tion aficionados of the music of Debussy and of early 20th-century French music in general. In short, much about this new release is fascinating, although it is generally disappointing as a musical experience.

Debussy worked on a short operatic adaptation of The Fall of the House of Usher inter­mittently during the last decade of his life. Although he completed a libretto, the only extant music is an opening prelude, a first scene and part of a second, and nine short, disconnected fragments from later in the work—none of it orchestrated. There is reason to suspect that Debussy, whose body was racked with cancer during his last years (he described himself as “a walking corpse”), had an ambivalent autobiographical relationship with the story, which con­cerns the symbolic theme of physical and spritual disintegration. Unresolved psychological conflicts may have interfered with his work on the project.

In 1976 Chilean composer Juan Allende-Blin completed a realization of the material for the opera, orchestrating it and uniting it into a continuous activity with a beginning and an end. Program notes by the usually reliable Harry Halbreich are rather vague concerning precisely what has been done here, but if I understood correctly, Allende-Blin has simply taken the opening portion (about 15 minutes) and connected onto it the remaining fragments. To my mind, joining this material into a continuous entity without accounting for the gaping holes does not make sense either dramatically or musically; no explanation or rationale is given. In no way can the result be viewed as a “performing version” along the lines of Deryck Cooke’s Mahler 10th, for example, since the result is not now a completed form. On the other hand, what we do have is quite interesting: a notion of the kind of dramatic adaptation Debussy had in mind and an idea of the musical language with which he intended to conjure the atmosphere of the story. Allende-Blin has clothed all this in appropriately diaphanous, sensuous orchestral garb.

Poe’s story is dominated thematically by a symbolic, almost tangible atmosphere, making it ideal for musical adaptation, although the fact that it is essentially static dramatically does not suggest opera as the most promising medium: I would think a dramatic cantata—some kind of sequence of lyrical tableaux—would be more in keeping with Poe’s elevated, stylized tone than an attempt to fabricate a conversational libretto. But the latter, strangely, is what Debussy had in mind, requiring considerable alteration of the story’s structure. In fact, De­bussy seems to suggest a “romantic quadrangle” not at all implicit in the original, which is an awfully obvious touch.

What we hear, then, is a brief orchestral prelude, setting a tone of misty anticipation, followed by several episodes that are disappointingly dull—much empty declamation—until it all trails off into the final incoherent fragments. The inadequacy of this music is underlined by a comparison of the opening section with the equivalent portion of Bartok’s contemporaneous (1911) Bluebeard’s Castle, which sets out to evoke a very similar mood using a very similar musical language.

Florent Schmitt composed his Study for “The Haunted Palace” in 1904, at about the same time as his stunning setting of the Psalm 47. Schmitt’s robust brand of impressionism is sorely neglected today, despite his importance in French music around the turn of the century—an importance explicitly acknowledged by both Ravel and Stravinsky, among others. Schmitt’s influence can be found in the stylistic crucible that produced such figures as Lili Boulanger, Arthur Honegger, and even Ernest Bloch. He was quite prolific and his work is not uniformly high in quality. But the Psalm 47 and Tragédie de Salomé (both available at one time on Angel S-36953) reveal him at his best, and the incidental music for Antoine et Cleopâtre and a Symphony No. 2 dating from 1957 (when the composer was 87!) are well worth exploring. This 12-minute orchestral poem, however, while pleasantly sumptuous, is thoroughly undistinguished. Not only does its stature fall dismally short of the poem that in­spired it (a poem that appears also within The Fall of the House of Usher) but the music has virtually no relationship to it in any way. Bluebeard’s Castle again comes to mind, as the most prominent motif of each work is virtually identical. There, however, the similarity ends. If the piece were entitled Rapsodie Romantique or some such, it might serve as fluffy filler for a disc or concert, but as “The Haunted Palace”—Roger Corman has served Poe with more loyalty.

Somewhat more imaginative is the Conte Fantastique for harp and strings, after the “The Masque of the Red Death,” by André Caplet, a close associate of Debussy. In this work a ball­room episode in the vein of Debussy’s Danse Profane is framed by a prelude and postlude quite macabre in tone. The harmonic language of the outer portions is astonishingly dissonant for a work composed in France in 1908—an extreme explained by the work’s programmatic content. However, aside from going on a bit longer than necessary, the work’s chief weakness is the pe­destrian and utterly conventional tone of the middle section. This, too, can be justified on pro­grammatic grounds, as representing the escape into banality of the Prince and his cohorts. Nevertheless, trite music is trite music; one can describe banality without being banal, as Poe certainly demonstrates in his story. While Caplet provides some strangely effective music in the outer portions, the work as a whole is simply too mundane for the story’s lofty, archaic rhetoric.

The inadequacy of these works in achieving a tone befitting their source of inspiration would not be such an issue if any of them was more successful as an independent piece. That not being the case, one is left to consider their relationship to their programs. Largely due to sympathetic translations by Baudelaire and Mallarmé early on, Poe’s work was greatly admired in France—perhaps more so than elsewhere—especially around the turn of the century. Yet French music at this time “sounded” so “French,” i.e., was so circumscribed by a particular harmonic and textural vocabulary, that it lacked the flexibility to extend itself to other sensibi­lities (aside from the Spanish, for some reason). Reflecting on this led me to wonder what other works might be viewed as achieving a tone more appropriate to Poe’s writings. Samuel Barber’s Music for a Scene from Shelley, for example, would be a far more convincing “Haunted Palace” than Schmitt’s morsel. And the material from which Vaughan Williams fashioned his Symphony No. 7 might perhaps have been used to create a Fall of the House of Usher. Maybe these are just my own subjective reactions . . .

In any case, the renditions on this recording give the impression of having been done diligently, but with minimal rehearsal time. Strings tend to be scraggly at times, but on the whole the performances are serviceable. Sound quality is extremely clear and transparent, magnifying some deficiencies in execution. Voices (in the Debussy) are miked a little too closely and mixed too far forward, but this is not terribly important. The disc is a real curiosity, but don’t expect musical revelations.

SCRIABIN: Symphony No. 1 in E, Op. 26. Symphony No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 29. Symphony No. 3, Op.43. Symphony No. 4, Op. 54. Symphony No. 5, Op. 60.

SCRIABIN: Symphony No. 1 in E, Op. 26. Symphony No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 29. Sym­phony No. 3, Op. 43 (“The Divine Poem”). Symphony No. 4, Op. 54 (“The Poem of Ec­stasy”) Symphony No. 5, Op. 60 (“Prometheus—Poem of Fire”). Doris Soffel, mezzo-soprano, and Fausto Tenzi, tenor (in Symphony No. 1); Wolfgang Saschowa, piano (in Prometheus); Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Eliahu Inbal. PHILIPS 6769 041 (four LPs). 

Despite the broad exposure given the music of Scriabin during recent years by such eminent musicians as Vladimir Horowitz, Ruth Laredo, Hilde Somer, and Vladimir Ashkenazy, a fair assessment of his achievement as a composer has been slow to emerge. Unfortunately, the man’s personality—not to mention his undeniably extravagant philosophical pretensions—has significantly overshadowed the music itself, either discrediting it altogether, or allowing a limited, patronizing tolerance of certain of its innovative aspects. Even William Mann and Christof Rüger, who wrote the essays accompanying this handsome set, exhibit such a bias, subjecting the music to much more harsh, skeptical standards of judgment than are applied to comparable composers of the Austro-German mainstream.

One of the most difficult aesthetic principles to accept fully is that a composer’s music, his artistic intentions, and his personality, while inextricably inter-related, are not coordinated so that one element can be evaluated by reference to another. (This is, of course, one of the important corollaries found within the currently successful play Amadeus.) For example, clarity of aesthetic purpose, as expressed verbally, does not insure clarity of musical thought, or vice versa. Nor does a degenerate, self-indulgent personal life necessarily produce an undisciplined work of art, or vice versa. Yet the vestiges of a simplistic, puritanical morality and primitive psychology underlie these implicit assumptions, which permeate conventional criticism. Perhaps it is only natural that biographical factors are applied to artistic judgments in direct proportion to the recency of the artist, but the temptation ought to be resisted. Rarely have such assumptions distorted the reality, how­ever, as in the music of Scriabin. For when one delves beneath the amusing accounts of the man’s boundless self-intoxication, and places in their proper perspective—without dis­regarding altogether—the grandiose commentaries with their thinly veiled self-aggrandizing implications, one realizes that the purely musical achievement is extraordinary—indeed, from the standpoint of stylistic development within a consistent vision, one of the most impressive musical achievements of all time.

It is important to bear in mind that Scriabin’s entire composing career lasted barely 25 years, and that these five “symphonies”—his only major orchestral works—spanned a mere decade (1900-1910). During this time Scriabin’s musical thinking underwent a highly individual evolution, quite logical as it proceeded from one work to the next, yet embracing a drastic metamorphosis, when viewed from its end points. Greatest emphasis has usually been placed on the last works, what with their innovations in harmony, form, and texture, which connect them to contemporaneous trends in the work of Debussy and Schoenberg, and thereby justify them to academic minds. On the other hand, the first three symphonies, while less “original,” are no less individual, no less satisfying as music, and are indispensable in understanding Scriabin’s stylistic frame of reference and the remainder of his body of work.

The Symphony No. 1, composed between the Third and Fourth Piano Sonatas, is a leisurely (more than 45 minutes), but not at all disorganized, work. While revealing some influence of Wagner, Tchaikovsky, and other prominent Romantics in its general language, the sound is unmistakably Scriabin’s own, literally from the first page, as the lan­guid, broadly arching introductory theme appears—the first of many such melodies that evoke moods of intensely serene, analeptic contemplation. Also in this movement is heard the sort of nature-sound that Scriabin was to refine so sensitively in succeeding symphonies. The Symphony builds from here with a generous array of memorable thematic material, developed through conventional means. Its six movements clearly reflect the traditional classical structure, expanded by a slow introduction and a choral epilogue. While the slow movements show the greatest originality, the two allegros and the scherzo provide vigorous contrast and reveal a characteristic nervous agitation expressed through deft rhythmic manipulations. This is an exceedingly ambitious work, especially in light of Scriabin’s virtual lack of any prior orchestral experience. (He had written only two short symphonic poems previously, and played no orchestral instrument.) From the first, however, Scriabin evidenced an impressive mastery of orchestral forces that has long been unrecognized. In fact, few composers primarily oriented toward the piano can match his achievement. The Symphony No. 1 sustains interest throughout its considerable time-span largely by dint of its variety of musical ideas and the imaginativeness with which they are treated. Even the vocal/choral finale, justly criticized for its static, repetitive, and overly symmetrical phraseology, is justified by the passion of its almost operatic melodies. The fact that Scriabin’s text is a grandiose paean to Art is another matter, worth a digression.

When approaching Scriabin, one must confront the fact that he often attempted to ex­press his particular philosophy of art and life explicitly through his music. Of course, every composer expresses his philosophy of art with every note he writes, but usually when non-musical elements are used, they carry a metaphorical function: One medium clarifies or enhances another. Even when a composer writes his own libretto, usually the use of metaphor and symbolism generalizes and depersonalizes the message. However, Scriabin felt no need to be circumspect. Over and over in his music he developed the belief that through creative artistic self-assertion an individual might transcend mere mortality and become divine. This is the essence of Scriabin’s impassioned verbiage, and he did not hesi­tate to have people sing about it, to write symphonies about it, accompanied by detailed programs elaborating upon it, and so on. If the listener will accept this, or at least accept its reasonably consistent function throughout the composer’s life, and overlook the rather immodest—but boldly acknowledged—assertion that Scriabin himself represented this transcendence to divinity at its greatest, then perhaps what appears to be incoherent rant­ing may be seen as the natural corollary of his overall aesthetic.

The Symphony No. 2 followed the First after only two years. While very similar to its predecessor in style, the Second Symphony represents an attempt to achieve symphonic unity through cyclical thematic transformation as demonstrated by Franck and so many other Romantic composers. In this work he also consolidates a five-movement structure into three large sections. Along with the long-spun melodies and the passages of agitation and assertiveness, there are more frequent climaxes—a reaching for culmination within the symphonic structure that points toward what might be called Scriabin’s rhetoric of con­stant hyperbole, which achieves its apotheosis in the “Divine Poem.” Yet, like the First Symphony, the Symphony No. 2 may be amply appreciated in its own right. A gorgeous large central Andante is the real musical highpoint of a work bursting with appealing thematic material and dramatic energy. However, despite its greater complexity, in many respects, the work is somewhat weakened by a tendency toward obvious cadential set-ups; and the transformation of the minor-key introductory theme into a pompously triumphant finale demonstrates a real lapse of musical taste. Years later, Scriabin exhibited rare objectivity when he acknowledged this himself, admitting, “I got stuck with a military parade on my hands.”

The Symphony No. 3, “The Divine Poem,” was completed only two years later, but reveals the composer at new heights of musical competence, as well as artistic daring. Its three movements, “Conflicts,” “Delights,” and “Divine Play,” are performed without pause, and most of the thematic ideas are related to each other and recur in each movement, integrating and unifying the work to an unusual degree. In fact, some may find that the recurring themes and connected movements result in monotony. The “Divine Poem” is an elaborate dramatization of Scriabin’s perennial philosophical obsession: the triumph of the creative ego over mortal inhibitions; and the canvas upon which this dialectic unfolds is lavish—indeed elephantine. The orchestral sonority is now reinforced by more prominent use of the brass instruments, and although the “Divine Poem” is not without its lovely, tender moments, climactic tutti passages predominate throughout. Apart from the philosophical program, which may be viewed as the very embodiment of raging megalomania, there is no question but that the “Divine Poem” is one of the most grandiose conceptions in the entire orchestral literature, next to which Ein Heldenleben appears as a modest divertimento. Scriabin is now thoroughly in control of his musical material, how­ever, and his technical security gives him unprecedented boldness. The huge sonorities, enriched by a marked increase of contrapuntal activity and rhythmic intricacy, ebb and flow with amazing gracefulness. For listeners who do not shun music with a high caloric content, the “Divine Poem” is a stunning achievement, despite its excesses. Whether one feels that its program is a help or a hindrance is a personal matter. For this listener, Scriabin actually manages to find appropriate musical leitmotifs for his philosophical abstractions, building a musical dialectic that is convincing and unique, yet without extending beyond the prevailing Wagnerian musical language.

The metamorphosis continues with the Symphony No. 4, “Poem of Ecstasy,” of 1907. Here the philosophical substructure and the system of leitmotifs are even more promi­nent, but the music has changed. The outer structure of sonata allegro form still remains, but the duration is now contracted to one movement. Moreover, the harmonic basis is significantly altered, as Scriabin’s reliance on the Wagnerian approach to tonality has weakened considerably. The phraseology has become more terse and irregular, and the texture more complex and fragmentary—less thematic, more motivic. While an unmis­takable outgrowth of Scriabin’s consistent artistic direction, the idiom is now far more personal and individual. Along with the “Divine Poem,” the “Poem of Ecstasy” is Scriabin’s greatest orchestral achievement.

In the Symphony No. 5, “Prometheus—Poem of Fire,” Scriabin carries the disintegra­tion of linear elements still further. Here the orchestra is augmented by a piano obbligato, a full chorus that enters at the end (as in the Symphony No. 1), and the notorious key­board of lights. Tonality is considerably attenuated, textures are further fragmented, melody is reduced in importance, and the formal structure is more nebulous, as ideas seem to rise from an ongoing morass into brief ecstatic paroxysms, and then return to their amorphous state. Does such a structure sustain itself? There are many captivating, visionary moments, but the activity is too localized. And the use of quartal harmony creates a sense of tonal neutrality that robs the opulent textures of necessary character.

This new set of recordings under the direction of Israeli conductor Eliahu Inbal is a notable contribution to the Scriabin discography. The performances are sympathetic, the recordings are appropriately stunning and lavish, and the surfaces are very clean, as is usually the case from Philips. Yevgeni Svetlanov recorded the first four of these works with the U.S.S.R. Symphony Orchestra, released as separate discs on Melodiya/Angel, around 1970. Of these, however, only the “Divine Poem” (S-40098) and the “Poem of Ecstasy” (5-40019) still remain in the catalog. These performances were quite adequate when they first appeared, but Inbal’s new readings are superior from the standpoints of both orchestral playing and recorded sound. The Symphony No. 2 was recorded by Georg Semkov with the London Philharmonic on CBS MS-7285 around 1969, a recording that was deleted after a few years. This was a fine performance, but the sonic aspect was not up to the level of the new Philips set.

The Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra is not really a virtuoso ensemble, however; thus the two later, better known works can be found today in performances boasting somewhat greater precision and more powerful sonority. For example, both Abbado with the Boston Symphony (DG 2530137) and Maazel with the Cleveland Orchestra (London 7129) offer a more intense “Poem of Ecstasy.” Inbal is unusually reserved and delicate during the non-climactic portions of this work, which does set off the grandest moments nicely. But he is a bit too passive during the other passages, when momentum must be maintained. “Prometheus” is doubtlessly the most difficult piece to present as a coherent structure, and Maazel is somewhat more successful in achieving this (London 6732), partly due to his superior orchestra.

Scriabin’s five major orchestral works stand with the most prodigious achievements of early 20th-century music, and deserve serious attention from all listeners who are in sym­pathy with the musical expression of this period. This set provides an ideal opportunity for listeners to become familiar with this fascinating music. For some reason, which Philips’ New York office was not able to tell me, this valuable set will not be released in the United States, and may only be obtained as a special import, some time in 1982.

The Piano Sonatas of Scriabin: Laredo Returns. Additional selections played by Gavrilov.

With the exception of Beethoven’s 32, probably no other cycle of piano sonatas captures and distills the metamorphosis of a brilliantly original, psychologically unique, and consistently engrossing musical world-view as successfully as do Scriabin’s 10. These sonatas chronicle the composer’s spiritual odyssey and the psychic realms he charted, moving gradually from the conventional world toward an ever more rarefied personal vision. Spanning a period of only about 20 years (straddling the year 1900), the sonatas begin by fully embracing the Romantic piano language of Chopin, Schumann, and Liszt, while imbuing it with features of Scriabin’s own personality—in particular, a languid sensuality and breathless impetuosity that join in reaching toward the ecstatic. As time passed, his works shed their conventional syntax, moving through a less symmetrical, idiosyncratically Wagnerian opulence, in search of formal structures purer and more organically wedded to the ideas and feelings that consumed him. By the time of his death at age 43, Scriabin had arrived at a virtually atonal language of twittering trills, spasmodic pulsations, and brittle sound fragments that conjure an almost Strindbergian nightmare world of demonic spells, ghostly processions, and other febrile hallucinations.

Scriabin’s blatantly delirious revelry can easily be misunderstood as the incoherent effluence of uncontrolled egoism. Yet the genius of Scriabin lies in the clarity with which this spiritual metamorphosis is documented. While acknowledging that not all the sonatas reach quite the same high level of achievement, one is consistently struck by their lucid, well-integrated formal designs, by their comprehensive exploitation of the contrapuntal, textural, and timbral possibilities of the piano, and by the instinctive musicality that pervades them. This music is as much the result of rational planning, clear thinking, and thorough technical understanding as it is the fruit of intuition and inspiration.

Ruth Laredo’s traversal of Scriabin’s sonatas appeared on the Connoisseur Society label around 1970. Not only was the composer’s centenary then approaching, but his visions of mind-expanding artistic experiences and synergistic fusions of the arts were echoed in the modern culture of psychedelia (short-lived as it proved to be). There was a flurry of Scriabin recordings, many of them hasty, ill-conceived, and utterly oblivious to the music’s artistic demands. At the time Laredo’s series of recordings loomed as the most musically profound and pianistically competent of those available, while offering extremely fine sonic reproduction as well. Their disappearance from the catalog was a real loss, although I always felt they were too good to disappear for long. In the meantime some of the better-known pianists of Laredo’s generation—no longer youngsters—have tackled Scriabin’s music, as have some of the new generation of pianists, for whom Scriabin is viewed as somewhat less of a mystery. Hence the welcome opportunity for reassessment provided by Nonesuch’s reissue of the Laredo performances.

Overall her readings remain impressive. Among her strong points is the way she savors the sensuousness of the music without sacrificing either textural or rhythmic clarity. An even more important virtue is her ability to maintain a continuous, coherently flowing linear thrust throughout the later, more complex sonatas. While many pianists tend to alternate between unrelated extremes of languor and nervous frenzy, it is necessary as Laredo does, to bring these two tendencies into one integrated gestalt. Her approach is most successful in what are probably the two finest of the sonatas, i.e., those that convey the most intense insights and develop them most fully, concisely, and convincingly: the Sonatas Nos. 5 and 9. Some of the other sonatas seem not to interest her so much, resulting in interpretations that are superficial and indifferent.

The Sonata No. 1 of 1891 is probably the weakest work of the cycle. Almost obscured by the shadows of Chopin and Liszt, most of its developmental activity entails matters of piano figuration. The thematic material, while recognizable as Scriabin’s does not draw much atten­tion. Its most interesting features are the funeral march which serves as finale and the opportunity the work provides of witnessing Scriabin’s compositional sophistication and stylistic frame of reference at age 19, as represented in a large form. Laredo does little, however, to kindle any sense of spontaneity or vitality in the work, nor does any other pianist I have heard.

For the next six years, Scriabin worked intermittently on his Sonata No. 2. “Sonata-Fantasy.” Despite its rather tortured period of gestation, it is articulated with remarkable freedom and a natural sense of assurance. From the start this two-movement sonata proclaims itself the work of no other creative personality but Scriabin, despite the fact that it too accepts an in­herited melodic-harmonic syntax. One of the least often played sonatas, it is quite lovely—memorable melodically and sophisticated pianistically. Only about 12 minutes long, it deserves much wider exposure. Both Laredo and Ashkenazy (London CS-7087; not currently in print) have given fine performances, although Ashkenazy seems a little stiff and forced, in comparison with Laredo’s smooth, spontaneous reading.

With the Sonata No. 3 of 1898, Scriabin returned to a large, four-movement format for the last time. This may be considered the culminating work of his early period. Again there are aspects, especially in the first two movements, that are a bit too conventional in phraseology (unlike the Sonata No. 2), but fanciers of mainstream 19th-century piano music should have no problem with it. In fact, I am surprised that it is not played more often (but then again, the piano repertoire is perpetuated more by precedent and habit than by anything resembling ac­tive musical discrimination). The third movement leaps out as the most striking, displaying Scriabin’s gift for gorgeous, long-lined melody—the first truly distinctive feature of his style to proclaim itself. Horowitz’s recording from the mid-1950s (RCA LM-2005) was exciting enough, in his manner, but Ashkenazy’s (London CS-6920; still in print) is positively brilliant. Not only does he play the fiery, dramatic portions with utter conviction, but he caresses the lyrical, poetic aspects with excruciating sensitivity. Laredo is quite a disappointment in this sonata. Although she too plays the slow movement with sensitivity, the rest of the work seems not to interest her at all, making the result utterly prosaic. One of the work’s most striking moments is the final coda, in which a triumphant apotheosis is suddenly transformed into a wild flight of terror. This part seemed to enflame Horowitz’s imagination, and Ashkenazy renders it brilliantly as well, but Laredo misses the point altogether. I would not be surprised if she learned the work in undue haste.

By the time Scriabin turned to his Sonata No. 4, in 1903, he had completed two symphonies and was ready now to reach beyond the conventional Romantic language, which no longer met his needs. A transitional work, this sonata aims toward a more limpid, mercurial sort of expression, much less harmonically stable—one in which sheer sensuousness becomes a prominent element. As the Third Sonata may be viewed as successor to the First, so the Fourth may be regarded as successor to the Second, with its two-section, slow-fast design.

Andrei Gavrilov is a 30-year-old Russian pianist who won the Tchaikovsky Competition at 19. His performances of the Fourth Sonata and of 24 early preludes (drawn from Opp. 9, 11, 13, 15, and 16), dating mostly from the period of the Second Sonata, approach the music pri­marily as studies in piano coloration. While he highlights the delicate and sensuous aspects beautifully, Gavrilov seems oblivious to its deeper emotional dimensions. This is not such a loss in the preludes, in which the challenge to a pianist’s command of touch, color, and articu­lation is primary. But there is quite a bit more even to these early preludes—poems that reflect succinctly on the issues of mood, style, and emotion that concerned Scriabin in his larger works. In this light I find Gavrilov quite superficial and cosmetic. In the Fourth Sonata, he offers a lovely surface, but misses aspects revealed in many other performances. Of the versions I checked, Ashkenazy (CS-6920) again surpasses the others with a magnificent reading. Hilda Somer (Mercury SR-90500; not in print) is also fine, but badly recorded; Kuerti (Monitor MCS-2134) is rather somber and dogged, missing the more mercurial and flamboyant aspects; Laredo is acceptable, but a little earthbound in this one.

Gavrilov also offers the Étude, Op. 42, No. 5, the best-known of this group of eight. Composed about the same time as the Divine Poem, these études are marvelously imaginative and inventive in their use of the piano’s resources, while brilliant as vignettes revealing the stylistic transformations of Scriabin’s middle period. Op. 42, No. 5, by far the most striking of the set, is particularly difficult, as its dark, restless turbulence, relieved by a characteristically soar­ing melody, is built upon continuous figurations that must be clear while remaining in the background. Gavrilov is O.K., but the nuances missing from his interpretation can be found in Laredo’s. The inclusion of the entire set of Op. 42 Études, played with penetrating insight, is one of the bonuses of the Laredo set.

The Sonata No. 5 dates from 1907, the same year as the Poem of Ecstasy, to which it is a kindred work, leading from Scriabin’s middle period into his final phase. The main connection between the two works, aside from the composer’s own attempts to link them, is found in their quest for a state of transcendent euphoria. But the sonata has none of the grandiloquence of the orchestral work. Instead, its brilliance lies in the rhythmic fluidity through which he creates that irrepressible, agitated sense of delight that is another unique feature of Scriabin’s matu­rity—an expression captured more successfully in this work than in any other. A revealing comparison is provided by Vladimir Horowitz (RCA ARL1-1766), Sviatoslav Richter (DG SLPM-138 849), Ashkenazy (CS-6920), and Laredo. While Horowitz is quite comfortable with Scriabin’s earlier style, the later pieces elude him completely. Approaching them primarily as technical challenges, he offers only the most shallow, two-dimensional readings. Music for which a performance tradition has yet to be carved in stone is, of course, the real test of a per­former’s mettle. Horowitz is clearly over his head in this music, attempting to dazzle with only his massive sound and ferocious virtuosity. Richter’s No. 5, from a 1962 concert, is even worse—angular, disjointed, and ugly. Listen to either of them side by side against Laredo and hear for yourself the combination of coherence and spontaneity that is her particular distinction in this music. Her performance of the Fifth Sonata is superior to any I have heard—including Ashkenazy’s. As noted with regard to the Second Sonata, Ashkenazy sometimes displays a slightly rigid, over-driven quality most noticeable alongside the fluency of Laredo’s better performances.

The five sonatas from Scriabin’s late period all date from the years 1911-13. Here are found the notoriously fragmented gestures, in which trills and dissonant chord figurations play important motivic roles, the disintegration of tonal and rhythmic stability, and the exploration of a personal harmonic language much more complex and demanding than before. Scriabin was now entering the realm of the most innovative and experimental voices of his time. Yet the structure of these late works is usually adapted from sonata form, with its motivic continuity in a developmental context; thus a coherent thread is always evident. But while Scriabin’s music is in many ways more formally responsible than that of many of his contemporaries, his personal and verbal extravagance created the very opposite impression—that of some wild-eyed, drooling lunatic, banging away at the piano in an onanistic frenzy—an impression that remains in the minds of some listeners, discrediting the legitimate importance and artistic merit of much that he accomplished.

The five late sonatas are quite complex, expressively as well as structurally. Though commentators—notably, biographer Faubion Bowers, who provides entertaining program notes for the Laredo set—have sought to characterize them verbally, taking the composer’s own fanciful descriptions as points of departure, such efforts tend to be hopelessly subjective, sometimes misleading, and generally of little value in providing insight into the music. As long as I have known these works and as fond as I am of them, I am hesitant to commit myself to distinct characterizations beyond the most general terms. I will, however, go so far as to observe that the late sonatas reflect a new concern with expressions of evil, danger, and terror, counter­balancing the preoccupation with ecstasy that had hitherto dominated the music. There is a strikingly ominous quality to the Sonata No. 6, for example, not found in any previous sonata. Laredo captures this essence most effectively, as does Kuerti, on Monitor. The darkness and mystery of this work seem to suit him much better than the lighter-toned Fourth Sonata.

The Sonata No. 7, sometimes called the “White Mass,” is perhaps the most elusive, intuitive, and complex of all the sonatas. With a much attenuated motivic coherence, it is the hardest to characterize and the most difficult to project in performance. Ashkenazy (CS-7087) is a little smoother and more meticulous in this one than is Laredo, but both are excellent.

The Sonata No. 8 has a more distinctive motivic profile, somewhat reminiscent of the Fifth, making it easier to grasp than the Seventh. Yet it has all the textural entanglements of the other late works. Why it seems to receive the least attention of the late sonatas I do not know. Laredo’s performance is very well shaped, although no other performance was available for comparison.

The Sonata No. 9 is known as the “Black Mass,” and is one of Scriabin’s most demoniacal works, yet at the same time the most lucid major work from his later period. In fact, it may be the greatest of all the sonatas, epitomizing the dark side of Scriabin as the Fifth Sonata epito­mizes the ardent, ecstatic side. Despite its strange content—portents of doom, a wild ghost-march, and a violent climax—the Ninth has such a clear structural profile that it is the ideal starting point for an understanding of the late works. As mentioned earlier, Laredo surpasses all others in this work, including Ashkenazy and Horowitz, who exhibit the same shortcomings cited in the discussion of the Fifth Sonata.

The Sonata No. 10 is highly regarded by many, often described (predictably) as the culmination of Scriabin’s mastery in integrating form and content within the genre of the piano sonata. While its ideas are more fragmentary and idiosyncratic than in the previous sonatas (and hence more “advanced”), I find it structurally simpler than the Seventh and far less tightly drawn than the Ninth. I don’t mean to denigrate it, because it is a fascinating work, no less than Nos. 6, 7, or 8, but only to put it in perspective. Instead of unfolding in a long develop­mental line, it returns to material episodically, as if continually running out of steam. This tends to make it diffuse and especially difficult to bring off effectively. Laredo is surprisingly inadequate in this sonata. As penetrating and fluent as she is in the Ninth, she is shallow, unfocused, and careless in this one. Horowitz (CBS M2S-757) is not too bad, although he doesn’t have the delicacy of textural nuance for this music. Ashkenazy (CS-7087) is truly extraordinary, giving the most carefully and sensitively articulated performance of the Tenth I have heard. Also quite fine is a recording I reviewed glowingly some years back (Fanfare IV:1, pp. 141-2) featuring the German-born, American-trained pianist Volker Banfield (Wergo WER-60081). The ensuing years have not diminished my enthusiasm over that unusual recording.

The Laredo set is augmented by some other incidental pieces, in addition to the Études, Op. 42. There is the soulful Étude in C#t minor, Op. 2, No. 1, also known in a Stokowski or­chestration; the two Preludes, Op. 57–“Desir” and “Caress Dansee”; and the totally bizarre Vers la Flamme, Op. 72. Laredo’s readings of the Op. 57 pieces are both ethereal and sensuous, befitting the music, although a radically different account may be found on the Glenn Gould Silver Jubilee Album (CBS M2X-35914). Gould treats the music in a predictably Germanic manner, with great deliberation, so that the pieces sound like somber afterthoughts on the Berg Sonata. Op. 1. The miniature masterpiece, Vers la Flamme, one of Scriabin’s last and most imagistic works, is like a musical nightmare built on a simple motif of two notes, a semi­tone apart. As always with Scriabin, there is a tremendous challenge to the pianist to control the articulation of the primary material relative to secondary textures, which became more and more complex as Scriabin grew older. I have heard many pianists fail to project the work effectively, and Laredo is only partially successful. I would love to hear both Banfield and Ashkenazy do it. Hilda Somer (on her Mercury disc) gave quite a compelling rendition.

There are more Scriabin recordings than circumstances have allowed me to sample in this overview. My comparison of those versions available to me renews my admiration for Laredo’s excellent readings. Despite occasional lapses there is a high order of pianism and a much more consistent level of understanding than one usually encounters in performances of Scriabin. Her superb playing of Sonatas Nos. 5 and 9, as well as perfectly acceptable performances of Nos. 2, 4, 6, 7, and 8, together with the brilliant readings of the Op. 42 Études, make this a very strong entry in the Scriabin discography. Listeners who, for one reason or another, have yet to fully embrace this music, but are ready for a sample, are urged to grab the earlier Ashkenazy disc (London CS-6920) containing the Sonatas Nos. 3, 4, 5, and 9-probably the best one-disc Scriabin record available.

SCRIABIN: The Ten Piano Sonatas. Eight Etudes, Op. 42. Etude in C# minor, Op. 2, No. 1. Two Preludes, Op. 57. Vers la Flamme, Op. 72. Ruth Laredo, piano. NONESUCH 73035 (three discs), produced by E. Alan Silver.

SCRIABIN: Piano Sonata No. 4. Preludes: Op. 9, No. 1; Op. 11, Nos. 2, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 16, 18, 20, 22, 24; Op. 13, Nos. 1-3; Op. 15, Nos. 1, 5; Op. 16, Nos. 2, 4. Étude, Op. 42, No. 5. Andrei Gavrilov, piano. ANGEL DS-38161 (digital), produced by John Mordler.