William Joseph Westbrook
MusicWeb International
May 2015

A recent BBC Radio 3 trailer for its Composer of the Week feature on Scriabin ended with a set of rhetorical questions about the composer, ending " … or was he, as some thought, just plain bonkers?” Scriabin had his personal eccentricities, but that does not explain a widespread tendency to dismiss the ideas behind his music such as Symbolism and Theosophy as vacuous and irrelevant to enjoying the music today. But those ideas were once influential in fin-de-siècle Russia and beyond, and in the words of the expert on Russian music and culture Richard Taruskin 'Scriabin … consciously modified his style so as to enable the music to serve the spiritualistic purposes his religious and philosophical beliefs demanded.' In other words the ideas can be a key to what as Scriabin’s career progressed becomes an increasingly elusive style for many listeners. No one dismisses Symbolist ideas as a helpful key to Bartók’s Bluebeard Castle or Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, so why would we do so for Scriabin? A disc offering Scriabin’s complete Poèmes for solo piano is a good place to explore these matters, especially when the notes expound those background ideas so and the pianist is so inside the idiom.

Thus one of the better known of these pieces is the late Vers la flamme (‘Towards the flame’). The flame of the title, according to Simon Nicholls’s typically illuminating booklet notes, is that 'ocean of fire which engulfs and remakes the universe in Scriabin’s mythology' which in turn is portrayed in 'its extreme thematic economy, its vivid symbolism, and its unbroken line of ascent.' Garrick Ohlsson reveals all this and more in the almost six minutes it takes to travel, in the composer’s phrase, 'from clouds to blinding light.' Two great Russian pianists and Scriabin exponents of the past—Horowitz who aged 11 played for the composer, and Sofronitzky who married the composer’s daughter—made sensational recordings of this work, but Ohlsson need fear no comparisons. He has the technique for this music and sounds entirely in sympathy with it.

 :… Dan Morgan recently reviewed the download of this issue very favourably on MusicWeb International, preferring it to Pascal Amoyal’s rival La Dolce Volta disc. The recently deceased International Record Review praised it also, but felt that the ‘cushioned’ piano sound was better for Brahms or Schumann and preferred that given to Joseph Villa on Dante in 1989. Be that as is may, you will find here the usual high quality of piano sound long associated with Hyperion.

The liner-note for the famous LP of Scriabin which Horowitz recorded in 1972 asked 'Is it possible that Scriabin, that mystical mad genius who evolved a musical language all his own, has finally made it?' The answer, in that year of the centenary of his birth, turned out to be 'no'. Perhaps this year’s centenary of his death will change that. More discs of this quality will surely help.