by Walter Simmons
SCRIABIN: Piano Sonata No. 3, Op. 23. Poèmes, Opp. 32, 34, 36, 51, 61, 69. Vers la Flamme, Op. 72. Vitalij Margulis, piano. INAK 8707; 50:12. Produced by A. Ulmann.
SCRIABIN: Piano Sonatas Nos. 9, Op. 6, No. 10, Op. 70. Selected Piano Pieces, Opp. 2, 8, 32, 42, 45, 69. Vers la Flamme, Op. 72. Vladimir Horowitz, piano. CBS MASTERWORKS MK-42411; 57:26. Produced by T. Frost, R. Moore, and H. Scott.
SCRIABIN: Piano Sonata No. 3, Op. 23. Selected Pieces, Opp. 51, 65, 73. Sedmara Zakarian Rutstein, piano. MUSICAL HERITAGE SOCIETY MHS-7408Z (LP). Produced by David Hancock.
Vitalij Margulis is a 60-year-old Russian pianist, currently living in West Germany. His recent release proves to be one of the most striking Scriabin recitals to have appeared in some time, proclaiming a strong interpretive personality and an impressive mastery of keyboard coloration. Margulis plays with a tremendous sense of authority, projecting the more extroverted selections with majestic grandeur, while presenting the quieter, more reflective pieces with a timbral palette of extraordinary subtlety and richness. For example, after Margulis’ heroic and grandiloquent reading of the Sonata No. 3 (unfortunately presented without cueing points on this CD), Vladimir Ashkenazy’s equally excellent rendition sounds small-scaled and understated by comparison. And in Vers la Flamme, one of Scriabin’s most brilliant excursions into madness but a work whose obsessiveness is difficult to develop cumulatively, Margulis delineates its multi-colored textures with revelatory clarity, making of it a much fuller and more complex experience than emerges from most performances. With the vivid projection of detail resulting from the pianist’s microscopic focus, the typically delicate, sensuous miniatures—Deux Poèmes, Op. 32, and the rarely heard Poème Nocturne, Op. 61, in particular—blossom into multi-faceted masterpieces.
The recital itself is built around a theme—those piano works designated by the composer as “poems,”—and features a number of rarely encountered works. Among them are the Poème Tragique, Op. 34, and the Poème Satanique, Op. 36—both dating from about 1903 and representative of Scriabin’s middle period. The former is a lush, romantic, and extravagantly rhapsodic work, which soars eloquently in Margulis’ hands. The latter is much more tonally ambiguous. although I would describe it as capricious rather than satanical, its diabolical aspect resembling more the salon spookiness of Liszt than the terrifying quality of Scriabin’s own later music.
Although at times Margulis’ breadth of statement threatens to overwhelm some of the lesser pieces, this is, on the whole, a stunning recital, breathing life into works that few pianists are capable of penetrating, either pianistically or intellectually. He is abetted in his efforts by a rich, spacious sonic ambience that contributes to the opulence of the presentation.
It may be difficult for many to think of Vladimir Horowitz as a pianist of modest stature, but listening to this disc (containing all his Scriabin performances previously released by CBS) alongside Margulis’—notwithstanding their different vintages—leads one to no other conclusion. Not that these are bad performances, mind you. Some are quite fine, especially those requiring both clarity and delicacy: the Debussy-like Deux Poèmes, Op. 69, for example, fare better in Horowitz’s hands than in Margulis’. But, for the most part, he approaches these pieces as pianistic challenges rather than musical ones, bringing to bear the sort of shallow virtuosity that suffices for the mainstream repertoire that represents the bulk of what he and his followers enjoy. Hence, he sounds most comfortable in the earlier pieces, whose appeal is on the level of Chopin and Rachmaninoff, although even there, lyrical moments are marred by a harsh heavy-handedness. For the remainder, the readings are technically competent, but the interpretations are obvious, often overly literal, and two-dimensional. Scriabin’s works require a deeper, more analytical level of musicianship than is usually encountered, which largely explains why this music remains a turgid, miasmal blur to so many—musicians and listeners alike.
After considering the efforts of such formidable colleagues, it is difficult to comment on the LP featuring pianist Sedmara Zakarian Rutstein. A native of Leningrad, she emigrated to the United States in 1974, and currently teaches at the Oberlin Conservatory. She appears to be a competent enough pianist, but not one to contribute much either to our understanding of Scriabin or to the current Scriabin discography. Most of her readings are adequate but routine and lacking in insight. She fares better in the more impressionistic selections, such as the mysterious and ethereal Deux Danses, Op. 73—Scriabin’s penultimate group of pieces—where she displays real sensitivity. But she lacks the power and intensity for the more aggressive works. Sound quality is adequate, but the piano seems slightly out of tune at times, with insufficient bass resonance.