SCRIABIN: Symphony No. 3 (“Divine Poem”)

SCRIABIN: Symphony No. 3 (“Divine Poem”). Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam, con­ducted by Kiril Kondrashin. ETCETERA ETC-1027.

Etcetera, a young Dutch company whose novel ideas and high standards have begun to make an impact, now issues a concert performance of Scriabin’s Divine Poem, played by the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, under Kiril Kondrashin. The performance dates from 1976, a few years before the conductor’s death.

The “Divine Poem” is one of Scriabin’s most grandiloquent works, an attempt to fuse the ecstasy of creativity and the ecstasy of sensuality into a religion—a modest undertaking. This was 1903, during a decade that fostered the artistic expression of agony and ecstasy on an extravagant scale. (Consider that this one decade produced nearly all of the symphonies of Scriabin, six of those by Mahler, Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande, Puccini’s Tosca and Madama Butterfly, Strauss’ Salome and Elektra, Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, Delius’ Mass of Life, Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony, Vaughan Williams’ Tallis Fantasia, Loeffler’s Pagan Poem—whew!It is a tribute to Scriabin’s genius that the “Divine Poem” manages to succeed so convincingly. This is partly a result of the way in which it relishes its own hedonism, without any need to torture itself with Germanic breast-beating. (Is there a difference between chest-thumping and breast-beating? One suggests guilt-free exultation while the other entails the need to fabricate a metaphysical crisis in order to justify it.) This is the same quality sometimes described as naiveté or innocence, often cited as one of Scriabin’s saving graces. The second is the sheer loveliness of his melodies, a quality that throughout music history has often compensated for a multitude of sins. And the third is the craftsmanship that holds this outrageous entity together. Boldly proclaiming its bloated rhetoric and elephantine structure from the first note, it proceeds to articulate itself with amazing fluency and ingenuity despite its ponderous gait. In fact, its only serious weakness is the reappearance of the “will” motto too frequently to prevent a chuckle. The “Divine Poem” may not be a work for everybody; but for those listeners sympathetic to the spirit of that marvelous decade this work is one of its essential artifacts.

The performance documented on this disc is a fine one; Kondrashin leads the work with great affection and thorough comprehension, not rushing when it needs to languish, but pressing forward when necessary to underline and distinguish its climaxes from the ardent ebb and flow. There are a few bloopers in the orchestra, but from the standpoint of interpretive conception, this is the best performance I have heard. However, the recording is rather muffled and tubby by today’s standards, and this is a liability in the “Divine Poem,” which really benefits from a bright, clear pickup—richness there is aplenty in the orchestration.

To summarize the alternatives: All in all, I recommend the Inbal/Frankfurt Radio Orchestra performance (Philips 6769 041 PSI). While perhaps not quite as focused an interpreta­tion as Kondrashin’s, it is a fine performance and recording, part of a magnificent set containing Scriabin’s five symphonies (see Fanfare V:1, pp. 170-73). Jerzy Semkow and the Warsaw National Philharmonic offer a good performance and recording (though not as refined as Inbal) on a very low-priced disc, if you can find it (Stolat SZNI-0118; see Fanfare V:5, p. 203). A little too ponderous but not bad is the Svetlanov performance with the USSR Symphony Orchestra, part of a set also containing Scriabin’s two earlier symphonies, available at a good price on Musical Heritage Society MH-834587 (see Fanfare VII:2, pp. 309-10). Least desirable from my point of view is Fedoseyev and the USSR TV and Radio Large Symphony Orchestra (Vox Cum Laude 9030), which is fatally phlegmatic.