Alexeev’s Wonderful Scriabin Preludes

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SCRIABIN: Complete Préludes. Morceaux: Opp. 45, 49, 51, 56, 59 / Dmitri Alexeev, pno / Brilliant Classics 95651

A few years ago, the extremely talented pianist Eduardo Fernández, whose recording of Albéniz’ Ibéria I consider the touchstone performance, sent me his recording of the complete Scriabin Préludes. I liked the performances but felt they were rather too slow; he evidently viewed them as being so much like Chopin’s Préludes that he chose to play them like Chopin.

This set is entirely different. Russian Pianist Dmitri Alexeev plays these pieces here in an more Russian style, emphasizing the spiky harmonies when they appear rather than softening their impact. Personally, I believe this is closer to what the composer wanted. No matter how enamored he was of Chopin, even to the extent of sleeping with that composer’s scores beneath his pillow at night in order to “absorb” his talent, he was still a Russian, and those Russian pianists who actually heard him perform his own music such as Rachmaninov and Horowitz did not play his music too slowly. They knew what he wanted.

Weighing against this, however, is the fact that Scriabin was a man of slight build who did not have the typical Russian power at the keyboard that we associated with Rachmaninov or Horowitz. His playing was often described as “coaxing” the notes from the piano. In this respect, tempi aside, Fernández is probably closer to Scriabin in this respect, but to my ears his slower pace allows the music to slacken a bit too much in places whereas Alexeev keeps things moving.

About five and a half years ago I reviewed Alexeev’s album of Scriabin’s complete piano sonatas for a major music magazine. I said then that I liked them very much but somehow found that his playing was less “edgy” in the late sonatas than the early 1970s recordings by Ruth Laredo, but since that time I’ve moved away from Laredo’s set of the sonatas and now prefer that of Garrick Ohlsson (except for one sonata, the “Black Mass”), so in a sense my tastes have changed a bit, too.

It is clear from this recording that Alexeev probably has a stronger touch at the keyboard than Scriabin himself did, and that’s fine. FYI, Scriabin left us some rare and valuable Welte piano rolls of his own playing, five of them being Préludes: Op. 11 Nos. 1, 2, 13 & 4, and Op. 22 No. 1, but as good as they were the Welte rolls did not capture a pianist’s touch with complete accuracy. Debussy’s playing on his Welte piano rolls sounds somewhat stronger and less atmospheric than on his fewer, and much rarer, G&T disc recordings, so you need to take the Welte rolls with a grain of salt.

That being said, my personal opinion is that Alexeev keeps the listener more consistently engaged in the music than Fernández. There is more continuity in the musical line, and his playing of the quite complex left-hand figures is so wonderfully precise (and interesting) that one could easily listen to this recording a second time and just pay attention to the left hand. Like Chopin at his best, Scriabin created not just a harmonic “support net” for what the right hand was playing but, rather, complementary melodic figures that often ran in contrary motion. The ear is sometimes fooled in this because, like Chopin, these early Scriabin works are largely Romantic and tonal, only getting into more interesting harmonic territory on the second disc.

By and large, even with Alexeev playing them, I find the first disc of Préludes relatively derivative and tame music for Scriabin, but as a complete set, this is the way to go.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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