by Walter Simmons
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.