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Hyperion Records

CDA67057/8 - Scriabin: The Complete Preludes
CDA67057/8

Recording details: June 2000
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Amanda Hurton
Engineered by Tony Faulkner
Release date: February 2001
DISCID: 860E252A F80FC030
Total duration: 121 minutes 55 seconds

'Everything about this two-disc set is ideal. Few pianists could show more sympathy and affection for such volatile romanticism, or display greater stylistic consistency. This new set of the Preludes should be in any serious record collection' (Gramophone)

Lane certainly knows how to tease out the music's textural subtleties; his emotional commitment is undeniable, as is his grasp of the poetic/virtuosic dichotomy inherent in Scriabin's music' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Lane is the perfect guide to Scriabin’s shimmering miniature masterpieces' (The Independent)

'To find contemporary performances that convey … aspects of the music more vividly and with greater sympathy, as well as with a good deal more technical refinement, one need look no further than Piers Lane’s recent transversal' (International Record Review)

'Lane's technical brilliance and assurance captures the most elusive qualities of this music, as one dream-vision dissolves into another … [his] control and balance of their veiled sonorities is wonder-filled' (The Times)

'Piers Lane is easily the master of all this … you get the sense this music is in his blood. The preludes have been well worth waiting for' (Amazon.co.uk)

'Lane's flawless finger and inspired brain are totally attuned to Scriabin's hyper-expressive sound world. Gorgeous, flattering sonics help elevate this recording to reference version status among complete Scriabin cycles. Bravo!' (ClassicsToday.com)

The Complete Preludes
CD1
CD2
Andante  [1'50]
Presto  [1'01]
Fier, belliqueux  [0'58]

Following his acclaimed recording of Scriabin's complete Etudes (Hyperion, CDA66607), Piers Lane now gives us the complete Preludes. The performances are bold and compelling, matching technical bravura with a rich vein of poetry and colour, communicating Scriabin's vivid and exceptional imagination. Beautifully recorded and superbly annotated by Simon Nicholls, this new two-disc set is a must for all lovers of Scriabin and the piano.

Scriabin was by natural inclination a miniaturist, and he composed short piano pieces throughout his life. His Preludes—fleeting evocations sometimes less than a page in length—foreshadow the Visions fugitives of Prokofiev and are descendants of the equally compact Preludes of Chopin.

Like a musical Fabergé, Scriabin is capable of creating a glittering world in a tiny space; the exquisite writing reflects the composer's own subtle pianism, which he liked to describe as 'crystalline' and 'perfumed'. The poetic diversity of these miniatures creates a fascinating programme, ranging from volcanic energy and disturbing violence to haunting stillness and atmospheric illusion.


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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
The musical ambitions of Alexander Scriabin (1872–1915) leaned towards the gigantic: five symphonic works, an opera project and the millennial Mysterium bear witness to this. But by natural inclination he was a miniaturist, writing throughout his career many pieces ‘short as a sparrow’s beak or a bear’s tail’, as one commentator caustically put it. These evocations, sometimes a page or less in length, can be seen as forerunners of the ‘fleeting visions’ of a Prokofiev and as descendants of the equally compact preludes of Chopin. The first piece on this recording dates from 1889; the bleak final set of Preludes was composed after both of Debussy’s cycles, in 1914, shortly before Scriabin’s sudden death from septicaemia. Like a musical Fabergé, Scriabin is capable of creating a glittering world in a tiny space; the exquisite writing reflects the composer’s own subtle pianism, which he liked to describe as ‘crystalline’ and ‘perfumed’, but moods of disturbance, energy, even violence recur throughout the long curve of stylistic development traced by these short pieces.

The idea of a prelude as an improvisatory curtain-raiser to a performance goes back to the beginning of the history of keyboard instruments, and improvisation was still regarded as an essential skill for a concert artist in the nineteenth century. Just ten years before the Chopin Preludes were published, Carl Czerny remarked in his Systematic Introduction to Improvisation (Op 200!) that ‘it is one of the pianist’s adornments … to prepare the listeners and put them into the right frame of mind by a suitable prelude’. The importance of mood in these short improvisations led naturally to the prelude’s independent existence, most famously in Chopin, Rachmaninov and Debussy. In Safe Conduct, Boris Pasternak recounts Scriabin’s warning against ‘the harm of improvising’, but improvisation was clearly instinctive for Scriabin and an essential element in composing. Many sets of short pieces were sent off to publishers by Scriabin when cash was short: Belaiev exhorted the youthful composer to systematise this spontaneous production, with the 24 Preludes of Op 11 as the result.

That major cycle is preceded by the pieces of Op 2 (1887–9) and Op 9 (1894). As a foil to the sombre C sharp minor Etude of Op 2 (recorded by Piers Lane on Hyperion CDA66607), Scriabin provides a Prelude of just seventeen ethereal bars – it opens with a horn-call like the one which later begins the Piano Concerto.

The Prelude for the left hand Op 9 (1894) dates from the time when, as a student at the Moscow Conservatoire, Scriabin damaged his right hand by over-practice (the works he was struggling with were Liszt’s Réminiscences de Don Juan and Balakirev’s Islamey; the rival student egging him on was none other than Joseph Lhévinne). This occurred in 1891, but the injury persisted for several years and doctors advised Scriabin (wrongly) that it would be permanent. This piece and its nocturne companion artfully exploit the natural ability of the left hand, with the thumb and strongest fingers playing the upper part, to produce a singing line with its own accompaniment. This one-handed polyphony had its effect on the later music, where an intricate left hand makes an important contribution to the luxuriant texture.

The Twenty-Four Preludes Op 11 bear witness not only to Belaiev’s organisatory efforts but also to Scriabin’s nomadic existence of concert tours and protracted ‘cures’ from 1894 to 1896, when the majority of the preludes were composed. Perhaps remembering the importance of Majorca in the history of Chopin’s Preludes, Scriabin appends a date and place-name to each piece. The key-scheme is Chopin’s, ascending through the circle of fifths with each major key followed by its relative minor. Unlike Chopin, Scriabin subdivides his cycle into four parts of six preludes each: Part I (1888–96), Nos 1 to 6; Part II (1894–96), Nos 7 to 12; Part III (1895), Nos 13 to 18; and Part IV (1895–6), Nos 19 to 24.

Analysis of the preludes of Op 11 by date and place reveals how much juggling (and transposition?) took place to produce the existing order. No 4 was composed first, at the age of sixteen, in Moscow; one year later No 6 followed in Kiev; in 1893/4 Nos 1 and 10 followed, again in Moscow. No 14 was written in Dresden, Nos 3, 19 and 24 in Heidelberg, and 17, 18 and 23 in Witznau (a Swiss resort on the Lake of Lucerne) on the tour of 1895. Later that year a group was written in Moscow: 7, 13, 15, 20, 21; Nos 2, 9 and 16 are dated November of that year, a date which may refer to the composer’s approaching split with his first love, Natalya Sekerina.

Prelude No 1 in C (Moscow, November 1893) reflects a Chopinesque influence, but the bar-by-bar waves of Chopin’s first prelude here become longer, ‘undulating, caressing’ lines (Scriabin later suppressed this descriptive marking in favour of a simple ‘Vivace’). No 2 in A minor (Moscow, November 1895) is a melancholy, hesitant dance; No 3 in G (written the previous May on tour in Heidelberg) flutters incessantly with the sound of a summer breeze led by the right hand, whereas Chopin’s prelude in the same key gives this movement to the left. No 4 in E minor is given the marking ‘Moscow, Lefortovo, 1888’, but is in fact a reworking of a Ballade in B flat minor from the previous year. Scriabin appended a visionary poem to the Ballade:

Beautiful country;
And life is different here …
Here there is no place for me …
There, I hear voices,
I see a world of blessed souls …

The poem is prophetic of the intense inner world which Scriabin was to build for himself, and the ‘difference’ of that world is evoked by augmented harmonies – significant because of their tendency to suspend the ‘normal’ laws of tonality.

No 5 in D (Amsterdam, 1896) is an idyll, spun out on an endless thread of steadily moving left-hand quavers. Its variations on a simple recurring four-note ascent demand the most sensitive voicing and an improvisatory freedom of approach. The spell is broken by the closely imitating, rushing octaves of No 6 in B minor (Kiev, 1889 – was Scriabin visiting his uncle who lived here?). The mood is one of headlong, impulsive heroism – there may be a reminiscence here of No XIII in Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze in the same key.

No 7 in A (Moscow, 1895) represents a considerable advance in technical demands, with its three strands – arching melody, restless middle part and impetuous bass figures – all to be balanced in dynamics ranging from pp to ff and propelled along at a never-resting ‘Allegro assai’ (Scriabin was supplying metronome marks for his music at this period, a practice he abandoned in later life). The speedy metronome mark of No 8 in F sharp minor (Paris, 1896) was flatly ignored by Sergei Rachmaninov in his own performances, which led to a dispute between the two young composer–pianists. (“It’s my interpretation”; “But it’s my music”.) Characteristically, Rachmaninov stressed the nostalgia, Scriabin the airborne impetus of this prelude. More stylistic thumbprints can be observed in No 9 in E (Moscow, November 1895) – the active left hand which the right hand seems to be commenting on and the skipping dotted triplet figure (a Chopin rhythm) which recurs three times with tender melancholy – in December Scriabin’s teenage love, Natalya Sekerina, was to refuse decisively his proposal of marriage.

No 10 in C sharp minor (Moscow, 1894) is even more characteristic in sonority, with the horn-like middle part established near the beginning and sustained through four final punctuating chords, and the chiming sevenths which run throughout. With No 11 in B we return to Moscow and to November 1895 (the next ten preludes were written in this year) but the regret has been replaced by a palpitating heart-in-mouth excitement, enhanced by a virtuosic left-hand part. The free-floating right-hand rubato of the middle section is typical of the pianistic style Scriabin developed from his idol Chopin. No 12 in G sharp minor (Witznau, June) was written in a resort on Lake Lucerne. It shares a tonality with Op 16 No 2, written in the same place – and with the Second Sonata Op 19 (1892-7), which was inspired by the Ligurian and Black Seas. A typically slow ‘Russian’ andante, its brooding quality is created by suspended harmonies of the kind whose importance would steadily increase in Scriabin’s musical language.

Part III starts with another slow prelude, No 13 in G flat (Moscow), exploiting the velvety quality of six flats and ending with a typical ‘horn call’ sonority. Its companion piece, No 14 in E flat minor (Dresden), depicts a mountain stream at Bastei dashing itself against the rocks. The time signature, then unusual, is 5/8 (Tchaikovsky, of course, had written a 5/4 movement in the Symphonie pathétique in 1893): Prokofiev might have marked it ‘precipitato’. Back to Moscow for No 15 in D flat: a cloistral hush and an airborne, suspended quality created by two-part writing in the middle register (very like that at the beginning of The Dream of Gerontius, part 2) introduce a song of deep peace. Its negative counterpart was written in November (No 16 in B flat minor). Here, endlessly repeated sequences are unbalanced by asymmetric rhythm (very rare in Scriabin): 5/8 and 4/8 alternate in a nightmarish march into the abyss.

The next two preludes were written in Witznau in June 1895. No 17 in A flat is brief and blissful, like Chopin’s A major Prelude. The key of F minor, relatively rare during the classical period, was associated with anger or outbursts of passion: Mozart used it for Count Almaviva’s rage in Figaro. Chopin’s F minor Prelude is extraordinarily violent, and was characterised by Alfred Cortot as a ‘malediction’; Scriabin’s Prelude No 18 in the same key is a tempestuous study in left-hand octaves, taken over later by the right hand.

The first prelude of the final section, No 19 in E flat (Heidelberg, 1895) is mature early Scriabin: the phrase shapes are characterised by a ‘swooping’ short descent followed by upward flight, with skipping dotted rhythms contributing to the sensation of weightlessness. The demanding left-hand accompaniment is rhythmically ahead of itself, each figure starting on the final semiquaver of the beat – a device perhaps derived from Schumann. No 20 in C minor (Moscow, 1895) has a meteoric career not unlike Scriabin’s own, blazing with the most elevated of ideals and abruptly snuffed out after brief protest. Interestingly, the composer’s son-in-law Sofronitsky preferred to play the manuscript version, where this tragedy is softened by a major-mode ending. The arrangement of the cycle seems to go against this: the tranquillity of No 21 in B flat (Moscow, 1895) is repeatedly interrupted by silences and No 22 in G minor (Paris, 1896) has an insistently falling, regretful cadence. The mood lightens with No 23 in F, written the previous year in the idyllic surroundings of Witznau. lts rustling broken-chord figurations are a clear homage to Chopin’s own F major Prelude – a backward glance before the heaven-storming No 24 in D minor (Heidelberg, 1895) which wisely avoids meeting Chopin on his own ground, concentrating instead on the pulsating chordal writing which had concluded the Etudes of Op 8.

Twenty-three preludes in the next four opuses bear witness to a project to write a set of forty-eight: the key scheme is followed again in Op 13 and Op 15 but begins to break down in the next set. To follow the circle of fifths as far as possible one would have to play Op 16 Nos 1, 2, 5, 4, Op 17 Nos 3, 4 (A flat is missing), 5, 2 (C minor is missing), 6, 7 (F is missing), 1. The order of composition is another matter, and overlaps greatly with the times and places of Op 11: in Moscow in 1894 Scriabin composed Op 16 Nos 1 and 3; in the same city the following year he wrote all of Op 13, Op 15 Nos 1–3, Op 16 No 5 and Op 17 Nos 4 and 6. Op 17 No 7 comes from the same year but from a visit in April to St Petersburg, where Op 16 No 4 was also composed. Other preludes result from the trips abroad: Op 16 No 2 was written in Witznau in June 1895, and the romantic surroundings of Heidelberg produced Op 15 No 5 and Op 17 No 5 in the same year. The Paris trip of 1896 was the origin of Op 15 No 4 and Op 17 Nos 1–3.

Scriabin clearly sets out to give contrasting characters to those in the preludes of Op 11: Op 13 No 1 is a solemn chorale, No 2 an airborne moto perpetuo, No 3 reflective and still, with a delightful tertiary harmonic shift, No 4 agitated (here each hand gets a chance to provide the semiquaver movement), No 5 a gentle study in sixths rather like the A major Etude, Op 8 No 6 (also on the recording by Piers Lane of the complete Etudes mentioned above), and No 6, a fine buildup in octaves with some kinship to Op 8 No 9 in C sharp minor, rounds off the set – both pieces attain grand climaxes but have quiet ‘dissolving’ endings, a characteristic feature of the later sonatas.

Op 15 is on a smaller scale: No 1 is an inconsequential improvisation on an unpretentious turn figure, No 2 another moto perpetuo, originally marked ‘agitato’ – a marking later replaced by a more non-commital ‘vivo’. There are two E major preludes in Op 15: No 3 is an expansive essay in arpeggiated chords while No 4 is a peaceful miniature. The meandering rubato of No 5 closes this rather introverted set.

With Op 16 we reach a more elevated plane: this is the Scriabin idolised by the young Pasternak. Characteristically, Op 16 No 1 sustains one dominant harmony for much of its length, supporting an aspiring, soaring melodic line. No 2 is built on obsessively repeated polyrhythmic figures. lts tonality has already been remarked on in connection with Op 11 No 12. No 3 is serene in its recurring pattern of sixths, around which a filigree solo line is spun. The twelve bars of No 4 stand all under one slur: Scriabin is obsessive in his construction of four-bar phrases, but this despairing page is constructed of four phrases each three bars long, which have to sing in one breath. No 5 is an exquisite, elegant dance miniature.

Op 17 is far less often performed as a set, but contains some of Scriabin’s loveliest pages. No 1 is a melancholy waltz whose ‘flying’ right-hand line, supported by restless left-hand cross-rhythms, reaches passionate heights. It is the left hand (as so often) of No 2 which provides the motive power, with octave figures across the beat; above floats a magisterial line particularly reminiscent of Chopin. No 3 is in Scriabin’s weightless, filigree manner, and No 4 spins a melodic line over an evenly moving bass similarly to Op 11 No 13, which is in a related key. The scenery of Heidelberg evokes an heroic response in No 5: widespread broken chords in the right hand complement a left hand whose opening gesture anticipates Rachmaninov’s Sonata No 2 of 1913. The ‘doloroso’ marking of No 6 is expressed by ceaseless suspensions, but there is an underlying serenity. These sets often close with a lightweight number, but No 7 is an exception with its long, mobile lines and virtuosic left hand.

1897, the year of Scriabin’s marriage and of work on the Third Sonata, brought four more preludes, Op 22. The chromaticism of No 2 is remarkable and No 3 could be marked ‘A la Mazur’, with a characteristic rhythmic catch in its melodic figures.

In 1900 Scriabin was working on his First Symphony; the two preludes Op 27 date from this time, showing complementary moods of heroic assertion and luxuriant abandon similar to the popular Poèmes of Op 32. An increased harmonic richness is already noticeable, and this is taken a step further with no fewer than nineteen preludes in 1903 – a year when Scriabin abandoned teaching and worked on piano music which was to include the Etudes of Op 42 and the Fourth Sonata, and on the Third Symphony (the ‘Divine Poem’). The four faces of Op 31 reveal characteristic Scriabin moods: Wagnerian opulence in No 1, imperious gestures and rhythms in the ‘con stravaganza’ of No 2, a shadowy chase ending in tragedy in No 3, and a strong flavour of harmonic experimentation in the brief No 4.

Op 33 starts with a limpid E major and a dreamy F sharp major (a key central to Scriabin’s consciousness), but the mood is shattered by an alarming outburst of anger in No 3 (‘con collera’), and Scriabin’s burgeoning ego shows itself further in the ‘daring, warlike’ No 4. Scriabin did not live long enough to reassess the idealistic illusions besetting that era; musically, the prelude’s impetus is increased by its 5/4 time signature, a feature shared with Op 11 Nos 14 and 16.

The three preludes of Op 35 come the closest to the manner of Scriabin’s middle set of Etudes, Op 42, particularly the swirling figures of No 1. Self-assertion, the ‘I am’ which opens the ‘Divine Poem’, is the ruling passion of No 2, but a rare and welcome touch of humour is brought by the experimental harmonic shifts of No 3. Op 37 opens with troubled soliloquy, but No 2 with its massive chordal writing is Scriabin at his most self-assured. Here, in the sixth bar, as Gottfried Eberle has pointed out, the ‘Mystic Chord’ is heard for the first time – that sonority which is unveiled fully in the Fifth Sonata – although it appears here conventionally spaced in thirds. No 3, a peaceful interlude, gives a respite before the wrathful gestures of No 4. The leaping octaves and tumultuous arpeggios here point directly to the late style.

The four preludes of Op 39 open with a strong harmonic flavour of the ‘Divine Poem’, but there is a suspicion here that Scriabin is applying his harmonic innovations to a familiar musical content. Not so with the startling twists, turns and mood shifts of No 2, truly improvisatory in manner. The mysterious languor of No 3 rests partly on Scriabin’s favourite three-against-five cross-rhythm. In No 4 the harmonic progression is enigmatic, elliptical, labyrinthine, like a sentence in very late Henry James.

Op 45 No 3 concludes a little trilogy along with an Album leaf and a Poème fantasque – as literary and philosophical ideas grew in importance, the poème became a favoured form. This short opus accompanies a crisis point in Scriabin’s life: living in Geneva, preaching an ‘artistic and political gospel’, in 1904 he left his wife for the twenty-year-old Tatiana Schloezer. The fantastical upward arpeggios at the end of each phrase here symbolise Scriabin’s flight (in both senses) into experimental, speculative realms.

The four preludes Op 48 (1905) were written about the time that work began on the Poem of Ecstasy, and the harmonic language has advanced considerably – so much so that the tonal endings come as something of a surprise. The marking at the head of each prelude is colourfully suggestive: ‘Impetuously, haughtily; poetically, with delight; capriciously, breathlessly; festively’. The snatched, hopping basses and impulsive rhythms and harmonic shifts of No 1 will become familiar in the later music. ‘Con delizio’, the marking of No 2, was to be associated with the unveiling of the ‘Mystic Chord’ in the Fifth Sonata of 1907: here, as there, the mood is rapt and transcendent. The downward twisting chromaticisms of No 3 contribute to its atmosphere of ‘breathless caprice’ and to a strange, Mephistophelian mocking character to be found elsewhere: in the ‘Enigme’ Op 52 No 2, ‘Ironies’ Op 56 No 2 or the Poème Op 69 No 2. No 4 reveals a Nietzschean mood of self-assertion at its most blatant.

The following four preludes were all written as part of cycles of short pieces. Op 49 No 2, from the same year, is another outburst of ill-temper, emphasised by hammered rhythms. Op 51 No 2 (1906), one of the most overtly Russian of all Scriabin’s works, obsessively repeats the same lugubrious phrases and harmonies; as it descends into silence one senses the endless hostile expanses of the steppes, waiting. Op 56 No 1 (1907/8) dates from the same time as the Poem of Ecstasy. Its virtuosic octave and chordal writing combines aggression and aspiration, and though nominally in E flat major it seems to be written in A flat with a cadence onto the dominant – a step away from the traditional tonal ending. Op 59 No 2 (1910) takes us decisively into the late period, the time of Prometheus and the return to Moscow. This is a terrifying vision of approaching war and destruction, built exclusively on the hopping basses of Op 48 No 1 and as insanely monothematic as the ideologies that brought (and bring) those wars. Here, for the first time in the preludes, there is no key signature and the final cadence ends with a discord (the Fifth Sonata and ‘Désir’, Op 57 No 1, had already ended away from the tonic and key signature is dispensed with in the Album Leaf Op 58).

The two preludes Op 67 (1912–13) come from the time of the last sonatas and with their rarified dynamic level provide a welcome contrast. The first circles mysteriously around the same few enigmatic harmonies; the second, with its rapid, velvety, chromatic left hand, led the early biographer A E Hull to write in 1916 of a vision of ‘hundreds of multi-coloured night moths fluttering about in the semi-darkness’.

With the five preludes of Op 74 (1914) we come to the last completed works of Scriabin before his sudden and unexpected death from blood-poisoning. At this period all his music was pointing towards the Mysterium project mentioned at the beginning of these notes, and in a public letter he welcomed the onset of war with naive idealism. But on Scriabin’s visit to London the previous year the practically minded Henry Wood observed that ‘he looked far from well and seemed to be a mass of nerves’. The unconscious mind, the wellspring of creation, is often wiser than the conscious, and these pieces impress us, not as millennial visions but as scarifying documents of individual and social catastrophe; not as tending towards some vast Gesamtkunstwerk but as returning to the improvisatory personal ‘miniature’ framework which had accompanied Scriabin throughout his career. This is, of course, an unprovable personal reaction, and Scriabin said of these last pieces that, as a crystal reflects many lights and colours, they could be played to express differing concepts.

The marking of No 1 can be translated as ‘painful, heart­rending’; repeatedly it returns to the same wrenching dissonance as if obsessively seeking out a source of pain or grief. Of No 2 (where the bass never leaves Scriabin’s tonal centre of F sharp) the composer said, ‘Here is fatigue, exhaustion … all eternity, millions of years …’. The vague tumult of No 3 rises to a ‘cry’ (Scriabin’s marking), like a shout in the night. The harmonic language is close to that of ‘Flammes sombres’ (‘Dark Flames’), Op 73 No 2. No 4 has the effect of a parenthesis: its style of strict four-part harmony and meandering ‘undecided’ harmony are unique in a composer who wrote so pianistically and always, as he said, ‘according to principle’. Does this signal what could have been a new point of departure for Scriabin? Unique, too, is the simultaneous major and minor third in the final harmony. Phrases from Wells and Shaw come to mind: ‘Mind at the end of its tether’, ‘As far as thought can reach’. No 5 connects with the end of No 3 and with the bellicose vein noted previously. The elements: two-note bass figures, tumultuous up-and-down arpeggiations, are familiar from Op 59 No 2, but the harmonic language and thematic development are taken incalculably further; and, as A E Hull pointed out long ago, the final great descent seems to end Scriabin’s output, intended to be so affirmative, with a tremendous question.

Simon Nicholls © 2001

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