Roy Westbrook
MusicWeb International
June 2015

A glance at the generic titles of these pieces—Nocturnes, Waltzes, Mazurkas—will reveal that Scriabin’s early, and in some ways enduring, major influence was Chopin. He also went on to publish several mature groups of Préludes and Études. The Polish master himself might have been proud to sign his name to at least some of the works played here by Stephen Coombs, especially if, like Scriabin, he wrote them as a teenager. A piece such as the B minor Mazurka will serve well in a ‘guess the composer’ quiz for your friends—except that it is so Chopinesque they will probably suspect a trap and reply 'early Scriabin'?

The disc has both published and unpublished early works. The logic for the choice is to collect all of Scriabin's early piano works that don't form part of a larger genre group such as the complete preludes, etudes, poèmes or sonatas, all available in other fine Hyperion issues. At over 18:00 the largest work is the E flat minor sonata which was finished—or perhaps abandoned—by 1889. Scriabin reworked the first movement to form the Allegro appassionato Op 4 which closes the disc. Much of the rest of the work was thought lost until 1970, and here is heard in a completion devised by Stephen Coombs himself. There are also some pleasant if inconsequential juvenile miniatures. Add to these some more mature published works such as the two pieces for the left hand Op 9 and the two Nocturnes Op 5. There is particular interest though in an early version of the Étude in D sharp minor Op 8 No 12. This is perhaps Scriabin’s most famous work thanks to the advocacy of Vladimir Horowitz (review review).

Stephen Coombs has recorded a lot of neglected Russian repertoire on Hyperion. This includes the much-admired complete solo piano music of Glazunov and selections from Liadov, Arensky and Bortkiewicz (CDD2054). There's also a disc in which he plays Arensky and Bortkiewicz piano concertos (CDA66624). In this Scriabin collection he shows a real affinity for what is frankly, at least with some of the smaller works, salon music of the late Tsarist era. He plays those slighter pieces with affection and an intimate sense of style. He rises to the bigger challenges of the sonata, the Allegro Appassionato, and that D sharp minor Étude in a grand manner that is both imposing and virtuosic.

Such playing suggests it would be good sometime to hear Coombs in a selection of the later Scriabin—perhaps that might appear later in this year of the centenary of the composer’s death.

As ever with Hyperion, a re-release on their budget Helios label means that only the price is changed. Artwork and booklet notes are as before, and the notes in this case are by the pianist himself and very full and illuminating too. This is music where it really helps to know the background of the composer’s childhood and early career and the context for each piece. The recorded sound is well up to the company’s usual high standards for its solo piano issues. It's warm and rich with just the right degree of perspective—intimate but not too close.

This issue however, despite the esoteric repertoire, does not have the field to itself. Maria Lettberg’s disc on Es-Dur arrived in 2012 with much the same content. However as her disc’s title ‘Opus Posthum’ suggests she omits the published items since she had already recorded every piano work Scriabin published in a fine 8-disc collection on Capriccio. Instead she adds the four surviving pieces by Scriabin’s son Julian (who drowned in 1919 aged 11), albeit with a hint in her own booklet note that these are so close to the father’s late style that they might actually derive from his unpublished notebooks. Lettberg is excellent and plays with authority. Those items attributed to Julian Scriabin are, as she writes, 'certainly worth listening to and … their composer was certainly called Scriabin.' Alas the recording of her Bechstein is a little close and clangorous at times—not as successful overall as that given to Coombs. So the Hyperion remains first choice in early Scriabin.