If you know anything by Alexander Scriabin, it's probably his solo-piano 'poème' Vers la flamme (Into the flame). All the Scriabin pianists play it, and when Vladimir Horowitz did, you knew from the first notes that you were in a room full of high explosives where boys from The Lord of the Flies were playing with matches. When Stephen Hough plays it on his new CD of works by Scriabin and Janáček (Hyperion), inexorability replaces excitability. Hough's movement toward the flame has the tread of a Poe story, with familiar words (here, sounds) deployed to create a phantasmagoria. You don't realize you're on the coach to hell until it's moving too fast for you to get off. That's a lot for six minutes of music.
The out pianist frames his CD with two Scriabin sonatas, the single-movement fifth and the rarely heard two-movement (though together shorter than the fifth) fourth. No one familiar with this singular pianist's work will be surprised to learn that what distinguishes his Scriabin is its clarity—at times almost blinding clarity. For once you really do hear all the notes, the correct ones even, and in the right relationship to one another, none of which has been a given in the recorded performances of the great Scriabinists. Marc-André Hamelin comes close, but the Canadian shorts the composer by leaving out that other essential of a great Scriabin performance: the ecstatic utterance.
The blaze of sound that sums up Hough's reading of the Fifth Sonata has the impact of a Jackson Pollock action painting: fission in which all the particles remain almost defiantly visible. The almost otherworldly delicacy you hear in Hough's performance of the other Scriabin work, the Poème in F-sharp Major, Op 32, No 1, returns at the beginning of the initially more orthodox-sounding Fourth Sonata, soon to be overtaken—overwhelmed, really—by a five-minute "flying" Prestissimo of unmistakable erotic charge.
Hough pairs the Scriabin with Leoš Janáček's On the overgrown path (Book I) and the Piano Sonata 1.X.1905, "From the street." The title alone of the Janacek sonata—his only piano sonata and one that was very nearly lost, the composer himself having first torn a third, final, funeral-march movement from the score before the premiere, then thrown (impulsively, he later thought) the shredded manuscript of the first two into the Vltava River—makes it plain that, like Scriabin, Janáček was making the sonata "form" his own. Like the story behind the work, the piece is as politically inspired, and impassioned, as the boldest of Frederic Rzewski's work, and one can already imagine Igor Levit having at it.
Hough gives a titanic (and of course pellucid) performance of the seldom-recorded and less-seldom-played piece, not a few of the notes of the first movement of which sound like gunshots, and have that effect on the listener. There's feeling aplenty in it, and passion and fervor of an unmistakably political kind.