by Walter Simmons
SCRIABIN: Symphonies: No. 1 in E, Op. 26; No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 29; No. 3 in C, Op. 43 (“Divine Poem”). L. Avdeyeva, mezzo-soprano; A. Grigoriev, tenor; RSFSR Russian Chorus (No. 1); U.S.S.R. Symphony Orchestra conducted by Yevgeni Svetlanov. MUSICAL HERITAGE SOCIETY MHS-834587 (three discs), produced by Igor Veprintsev and Aleksander Grosman.
SCRIABIN: Symphony No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 29. Symphonie Canadiana conducted by Yondani Butt. ORION ORS-83451, produced by Marion Cornfield.
The listener who is ready to pursue Scriabin’s first three symphonies has a fair range of possible recordings from which to choose, with considerable musical rewards in each price category. My review of the splendid, but expensive, Philips set (6769 041 PSI), containing luscious, handsomely wrought performances of all five symphonies by the Frankfurt Radio Symphony under Eliahu Inbal, appeared in Fanfare V:1 (pp. 170-173). Many collectors are already likely to own individual recordings of the two later works, Poem of Ecstasy and Prometheus, Poem of Fire. (I recommend Maazel’s brilliant performances, on London 7129 and 6732, respectively.)
Therefore, Musical Heritage Society’s recent set containing the three earlier works, at a modest price, is a useful issue. These are the same Melodiya recordings that were available during the 1970s on Angel, and they are quite good performances. The orchestra plays well, if one can accept the slight coarseness—especially in the brass—characteristic of Russian ensembles. Svetlanov has the style of these works—the ebb and flow of their throbbing, sumptuous textures, their languid ruminations unsettled by undercurrents of restlessness—well in hand, making this set an excellent introduction to the music. While no match for the velvety sonics of the Philips set, the sound quality of the MHS discs is quite good, aside from a slight stridency at the climaxes.
In my review of the Inbal/Philips set I discussed the first three symphonies individually, along with the conventional attitudes toward them, at some length. Therefore I will try to refrain from repeating myself and direct the interested reader to that review, while encouraging any aficionados of late-Romantic orchestral music who are not familiar with these works (and I am continually amazed to learn that there are many) to give them a chance. They are a hedonist’s delight, permeated by a generous vein of gorgeous melody that will ingratiate those intimidated by their notorious “heaviness,” while displaying an ingenuous joie de vivre that will disarm those who are suspicious of their grandiose philosophical pretensions. From the very first phrase of the Symphony No. 1, with its wide-arching statement, yawning and leisurely awakening, Scriabin’s distinctive melodic voice is clearly evident. Not only are these works rewarding in their own right, but they serve as fascinating links in the strange evolution of one of the most fertile and provocative minds in musical history. The word “early,” incidentally, often used in describing these compositions, can lead one to forget that all five symphonies were completed within a single decade: 1900-1910.
For those interested in sampling just one, the best place to start is the Symphony No. 3, “Divine Poem,” in the performance by the Warsaw Philharmonic under Jerzy Semkow’s direction (Stolat SZM-0118—see Fanfare V:5, p. 203). The “Divine Poem” is the most fully realized of the three pieces under discussion, and this recording is both extremely good and extremely inexpensive. (Interested purchasers are urged to act quickly: rumor has it that the Stolat line may soon be dropped.) By contrast, the Russian performance conducted by Vladimir Fedoseyev on Vox Cum Laude is devoid of the inner turbulence and unrest necessary to keep these pieces in motion, and therefore drowns in its own languor. (P.J.R. expressed a more favorable reaction in Fanfare VI:4, pp. 252-3.) On the MHS set at hand, the otherwise fine Svetlanov performance is marred by the omission, believe it or not, of the work’s final note: a unison reiteration of the tonic. (Strange as it may seem, in the context of a cadence that does, shall we say, have its redundancies, this omission is not quite as glaring as one might expect.)
Scriabin’s Symphony No. 2 is probably the weakest of the five symphonies, despite many appealing qualities. In it the composer attempted a degree of formal integration that, in theory, exceeded the structural sophistication of its predecessor. However, the result is flatfooted, pompous, and predictable in its phraseology—a point acknowledged even by the composer himself, who was not noted for self-criticism. It remains an endearing work to Scriabin enthusiasts, however, by dint of its melodic appeal, its high aspirations, and its unfailing gusto.
The notion of a young orchestra like the Symphonie Canadiana taking on a work of the scope of Scriabin’s Symphony No. 2 is so ambitious as to seem foolhardy. However, Yondani Butt and his group, who have already made an auspicious appearance on records in a program of short orchestral works (Orion ORS-82433–see Fanfare VI:5, pp. 285-6) seem joined in a rather remarkable partnership. The conductor shows considerable intelligence and musical sensitivity in his shaping of this difficult and problematical work, and his orchestra—only seven years old—cooperates in a sophisticated, refined performance rivaling Svetlanov’s rendition of the work. Moreover, the sound quality of this Orion disc is quite brilliant.
I don’t know anything about the background dynamics of this orchestra and its conductor, but they appear to have the kind of rare collaboration of musical vision which, in conjunction with a record company like Orion, could result in some really meaningful contributions to today’s dull, philistine music scene. Having demonstrated the courage to tackle major orchestral works outside the standard repertoire, they would be well-advised to concentrate on some important compositions for which there is no recorded competition—works like Ernest Bloch’s Symphony in C-sharp minor, for example. Not only will this make a greater contribution to our musical life, but it will give Butt and the Symphonie Canadiana far greater prominence. I will be interested to follow the development of this orchestra and its conductor, and hope they receive the attention they deserve.