Roy Westbrook
MusicWeb International
June 2015

Is it really twenty years since Marc-André Hamelin set down these famous recordings for Hyperion in a London church? The record company’s website lists some of the recommendations and awards it soon acquired, and some of the overwhelmingly favourable reviews it attracted. The centenary of the composer’s death might be a good moment to look back at this achievement and assess its current standing.

The first sonatas, numbers One to Four, as well as the Fantaisie Op 28, occupy the first disc. These first four sonatas are all multi-movement ones, whereas their six successors are all highly concentrated single movement works. Hamelin resists any notion that these earlier works are in any sense less important, and they are treated to the same preparation and high commitment as their successors. Certainly he must have come to the recording sessions with the notes of all twelve works in his mind and fingers, since they exhibit formidable accuracy, often at daring tempi. It might seem paradoxical, but exhaustive preparation must have been needed to produce such spontaneous-sounding versions as these.

That preparation might well have included a sympathetic reading of the composer’s many statements of his mystical aims and philosophical interests in relation to his music. These statements are often dismissed as so much hot air, but they meant something to Scriabin, and his music would surely not be the same without the extra-musical ideas that inform it. Certainly the words used of the Third Sonata, where “the free untamed soul passionately throws itself into pain and struggle …” seem to describe very well the unfettered abandon Hamelin brings to this difficult music.

Similarly, the Fourth Sonata’s programme is found in a poem by the composer concerning flight to some distant star, and certainly in the second of its two movements, marked Prestissimo volando, the sheer velocity of Hamelin’s playing achieves lift-off, as he seems to escape the gravitational pull and earthly bliss of the andante first movement. It is a wonder that such élan, which we associate with a live performance before an enraptured audience, can be achieved in a draughty church with just a couple of engineers for company … or so one assumes. We expect a huge cheer at the end—which is not there—but you might find yourself supplying it in the privacy of your own home when confronted with playing like this.

The second disc has one-movement sonatas Five to Ten plus the early unpublished Sonate-Fantaisie in G sharp minor of 1886. The Fifth sonata opens ferociously with loud thunder in the bass, instantly yielding to slow soft musings—Hamelin revels in these great and sudden contrasts, pointing them up quite unapologetically. Yet still the piece is held together, in part by a sense of intense concentration. If, as here, the composer writes Impetuoso. Con Stravaganza—Languido then that is what we are given. Technical innovations abound in these performances of the later sonatas, where for instance the innocent trill, once a mere melodic ornament in music, has become a symbol of the soaring ambition of Scriabin’s art. Yet such trills—influenced perhaps by their use in the late Beethoven sonatas—can range from angelic flutterings to volcanic thunder, and Hamelin does justice to each type. Above all there is the sheer ecstatic propulsion of the swifter passages, where what Scriabin called ‘the uproar of the elements’ is made audible. Scriabin had his demonic side, and was fond of the tritone or diabolus in musica. Here one has to wonder at times if the pianist himself once made some infernal pact in return for such gifts.

In key solo piano repertoire no-one has the field to themselves. I have sampled several alternative versions, from Roberto Szidon and Vladimir Ashkenazy (the 1970s and 1980s benchmarks) through to Håkon Austbo and Robert Taub in the 1990s and on to Maria Lettberg, Vladimir Stoupel and Dmitri Alexeev since 2000. These are all very good indeed, though Lettberg’s is different, being an invaluable eight disc collection of all the published piano music of Scriabin. Some of the individual sonata performances in those sets, especially by Szidon and Ashkenazy, come close to matching Hamelin. However as a set of all ten Scriabin sonatas this version remains unrivalled. In particular the sense of placing a truly sympathetic understanding - and such a transcendental technique - totally at the service of the music is hard to beat. Add to that a still very agreeable recorded sound, and the outstanding and comprehensive 15-page booklet by Simon Nicholls, and you have one of the great piano recordings. I doubt the Scriabin centenary will bring a better one.