SCRIABIN: Preludes (complete), Vol. 2. Etudes (complete)

SCRIABIN: Préludes (complete), Vol. 2. Paul Komen, piano. GLOBE–GLO 5098 [DDD]; 61:26. Produced by Klaas A. Posthuma.
Sept Préludes, Op. 17. Quatre Préludes, Op. 22. Deux Préludes, Op. 27. Quatre Préludes, Op. 31. Quatre Préludes, Op. 33 Trois Préludes, Op. 35. Quatre Préludes, Op. 37. Quatre Préludes, Op. 39. Prelude, Op. 45, No. 3. Quatre Préludes, Op. 48. Prelude, Op. 49, No. 2. Prelude, Op. 51, No. 2. Prelude, Op. 56, No. 1. Prelude, Op. 59, No. 2. Deux Préludes, Op. 67. Cinq Préludes, Op. 74.

SCRIABIN: Études (complete). Nikita Magaloff, piano. DISQUES MONTAIGNE–782015 [DDD]; 54:33. Produced by Xavier Rist.
Etude, Op. 2, No. 1. Douze Études, Op. 8. Huit Études, Op. 42. Trois Études, Op. 65.

Although Scriabin’s five symphonies and ten piano sonatas are generally viewed as the “backbone” of his output, the short character piece must be regarded as his most characteristic form of expression, and he produced them copiously throughout his relatively brief yet continually evolving compositional career. He wrote some two hundred of them in all, each generally a minute or two in duration, with vague genre titles like préludepièce, poèmeetc., although those entitled étude tend to address specific pianistic technical challenges. For the most part they are autonomous entities, grouped together for convenience of identification and publication. Some of the earlier groupings, such as the Op. 11 Préludes, are compilations of music composed at different times. Hence, pianists are justified in creating and performing their own groupings, and have usually done this. I don’t know how others feel, but my own nature, perhaps obsessive-compulsively, prefers this music presented in a more orderly fashion, as is done on both these CDs. Otherwise it is difficult for these abstract miniatures to acquire identities of their own; in loose ad hoc groupings they can easily evaporate from one’s memory. It is probably their taxonomical anonymity that accounts for the relative neglect of most of these pieces within Scriabin’s output. (Exceptions are theÉtude, Op. 2, No 1, and the Étude, Op. 8, No. 12, and it is perhaps no coincidence that they are especially simple in concept and style — though not in execution.)

Given their due attention, Scriabin’s miniatures are marvels of subtlety, inventiveness, and eloquence of expression within a format of extreme brevity, while revealing a consummate mastery of the piano’s artistic resources. Furthermore, viewed chronologically, as these recordings encourage, they provide a fascinating overview of the composer’s extraordinary stylistic evolution, over the course of some 25 years, from the conventional language of romantic pianism to a highly idiosyncratic form of atonality that reveals a rarefied visionary realm of exquisite mystery and sensitivity. This course of development is quite apparent just from a consideration of pieces called Préludes alone. In fact, they reveal that Scriabin’s stylistic evolution was really gradual and continuous, without clear points of demarcation or departure, despite the fact that commentators typically divide his work into three discrete “periods.”

Although the Préludes appeared throughout his career, they were especially plentiful during the earlier years, so that Volume 2, the second half of the young Dutch pianist Paul Komen’s complete traversal, begins with Opus 17 (1895-6, shortly before the second sonata). Reviewing Volume 1 in Fanfare 16:3 (pp 236-7), William Zagorski also praised the chronological format, while describing Komen’s performances as “well-crafted, probing, and revealing,” but “lacking … that last ounce of impetuousness and diablerie that so distinguishes Horowitz’s general approach to Scriabin.”  Although I believe that the Scriabin performance standard today has surpassed Horowitz’s limited level of insight, I would generally agree with Zagorski’s assessment of Komen, who displays considerable sensitivity and technical assurance in readings that are competent and interpretively informed, but diligent, rather than revelatory or inspired.

Scriabin’s Études fall within his output in such a way as to suggest the three stylistic “periods” noted earlier. The Opus 8 group (1893-95) inhabits the rhetorical world of Chopin, while revealing the Russian’s own distinctive personality. The Opus 42 group (1903) dates from the amazingly fruitful time when Scriabin had just resigned from the Moscow Conservatory to concentrate on composition. These sumptuously-textured but well-focused pieces go far beyond their models in plumbing a unique psycho-emotional sensibility while presenting extraordinary technical challenges to the pianist. The brief Opus 65 set (1912) ventures into the bizarre realm of fragmentary gestures and nightmare images to which Scriabin’s internal odyssey ultimately led.

Veteran Russian cosmopolite Nikita Magaloff was born the same year the Études, Op. 65, were composed, and he has known Scriabin’s music since childhood. However, his intelligence and experience are not supported by the thorough technical mastery necessary to give eloquent voice to the musical content. Hence his readings of the earlier pieces are marked by some awkwardness — even obviousness — while the later pieces fail to come to life altogether, as all energy seems expended in simply playing the notes and attempting to delineate the textural layers.

I would like to hear recordings of this music by the German pianist Volker Banfield and by the Russian Vitalij Margulis, whose performances of Scriabin are among the most fullyconvincing I have ever encountered.