Steve Arloff
MusicWeb International
January 2016

I can do no better than to quote from pianist Stephen Hough who writes “This recording brings together two Slavic eccentrics, both originals, both geniuses with high energy and powerful sexuality inspiring their lives and works – yet as musicians they are far apart. Janáček characteristically uses small cells that repeat, often obsessively, within a harmonic language which is always unsettled and uncomfortable. Scriabin’s long, sensual lines, float along and sink inside a hot perfumed bath of harmony—comfort to excess. Janáček the vertical; Scriabin the horizontal.” He goes on to say how much he enjoys playing the music of these two composers side by side as each highlights the beauty of the other. It is only when he says he finds too much Scriabin can become cloying while too much Janáček can become exhausting that I disagree since I can wallow happily for hours in each.

Hough is absolutely right when he describes Scriabin’s music as sensual and equates it to perfume as it radiates a heady luminosity. It is unsurprising to learn that sonata No 5 shares more than just adjoining opus numbers with his most well known work, his Le poème de l’extase. It was also illuminating to read of Scriabin’s absorbing interest in flying and his attempts to learn how to levitate since the sonata fairly flies along seeming to have grown organically out of the preceding sonata No 4, the last movement of which is marked Prestissimo volando (‘Flying as fast as possible’). Indeed the fifth eventually flies off into oblivion finishing as it does abruptly mid phrase.

What a different world we are invited into when the opening of Janáček’s On the overgrown path (book I) begins, for gone is the feeling of being sure of oneself that characterises Scriabin’s music. In its place there are feelings of anxiety and heartache that saturate this work. The loss first of a son and then fourteen years later of his beloved 21 year old daughter Olga affected Janáček profoundly. He never got over these two tragedies and his music reflects that to the extent that it seems almost aurally voyeuristic to listen to the outpourings of grief that much of this cycle details. Nevertheless, the feelings are so genuine that one cannot fail to be affected by the music’s fragile beauty. I have always been deeply moved by it and for me it requires sensitive handling with the pianist becoming immersed in the same feelings, as far as possible, that gave rise to its creation. Stephen Hough plays it wonderfully well though I still prefer the playing of Ivan Klánský whose recording from the 1980s seems to me to be even more persuasive. I recognise that, as is often the case, since Klánský’s version was the one I heard first and as it bowled me over so completely it is his version that has stayed with me and is always the aural benchmark by which I judge other performances. I have at least four others and it is fascinating to listen and to hear the sometimes extremely subtle differences between them. As I say, it seems to me that, as far as possible, to achieve a convincing performance the pianist has to enter the world in which Janáček was when he wrote the cycle. More than in most other repertoire this music is so personal that it is vital to go beyond notes on the page. Stephen Hough clearly appreciates this and his playing mirrors the fragility extremely well. He gives a powerful and compelling performance.

Returning to Scriabin with the first of his two poèmes we are released from the weight of despair and re-enter the world of the sensuous. Not for long, since the second, Vers la flamme is a short journey from a beginning that seems innocuous enough even if somewhat mysterious to the white heat of immolation with the music totally burning itself out.

Janáček’s sonata ‘1.X.1905, From the Street’ is an important work in Janáček’s catalogue. When you read that it was only through the presence of mind of the work’s first performer, Ludmilla Tučková that we are able to hear it you tend to listen to it differently and thank that pianist’s good sense. Janáček was motivated to write it following the bayoneting to death by Austrian troops of a Moravian carpenter who was demonstrating in favour of the establishment of a Czech-speaking university. It is always disquieting to learn how far Man will go to maintain narrow and blinkered thinking as if, in this case, such a thing in itself could seriously have threatened Austrian rule. It is a powerful work inspired by powerful feelings and Stephen Hough brings them out perfectly.

The disc ends with Scriabin’s fourth piano sonata which is in two movements, the second of which as noted above is marked Prestissimo volando and which caused the exhortation from Scriabin to one performer that ‘It must fly at the speed of light right at the sun, straight into the sun!’ Stephen Hough takes that instruction to heart presenting the sonata in a thoroughly radiant way that emphasises its propelling nature to the Nth degree. At the end, he leaves the listener both breathless, exhausted and in wonder.