Michael Ponti’s Superb Scriabin


SCRIABIN: Sonata-Fantaisie in G# min., WoO 6. Piano Sonata in Eb min., Op. Post. Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-10. 3 Études, Op. 65. Poèmes Opp. 71 & 72 (Vers la flamme). 2 Dances, Op. 73.  5 Preludes, Op. 74 / Michael Ponti, pno / Vox Box CDX-5184

I must thank critic Jed Distler for alerting me to the excellences of this set via his online review on Classics Today. Having been through the recordings of Ruth Laredo, Marc-André Hamelin, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Matthew Bengtsson and Garrick Ohlsson, all of which had some good performances but several others that I felt fell flat, I really picked up on what Distler had to say about Ponti:

Ponti really understands Scriabin’s overwrought idiom, and he plays up the music’s sensual lyricism and purple passion for all they’re worth…To be sure, the readings are not so accurate or technically refined in detail as those of other pianists who’ve since recorded the 10 canonic Scriabin sonatas, [but] Ponti includes both of the composer’s early “pre-first” sonatas (the G-sharp minor Sonata-Fantasia and the E-flat minor Sonata Op. Posthumous).

The problem with this set, as Distler pointed out, was the sound quality, “flinty, harsh, dynamically constricted sonics…well below the 1960s’ highest standards.” But unlike a lot of classical music lovers, I have an audio editor (actually two: Audacity and GoldWave), and I was able to make these recordings very listenable by reducing the treble by 3 db, increasing the mid-range by 3 db and the bass by 2 db. This produced a more natural, realistic piano sound without unduly reducing the brightness of Ponti’s piano, and when I finished with the set I was more than happy with it.

Mind you, there were a couple of sonatas (particularly Nos. 5 and 7) where I felt that Ponti’s tempi were a bit rushed. I also admit that if Vladimir Horowitz had recorded the whole series, his performances would be the yardstick against which all others would be judged, but in comparison to those I’ve heard, these sound the most like Scriabin’s own recordings of Études, Preludes, Poèmes, Désir and the Mazurka Op. 40 No. 2 that he made on Welte piano rolls. They have the same flow as well as, more importantly, the same energy.

Scriabin, like his friend Kandinsky, was a synesthesiac who saw music as colors; in fact, he produced a color-coded illustration of a piano keyboard indicating where all the colors were for others’ future reference. A few of these colors are muted, but the majority are bright and brilliant. He was, after all, a Russian, and Russians tend to feel things very deeply. Thus we need to keep this in mind when listening to recorded performances of his music, and Ponti, fighting to overcome the thin, harsh sound, managed to find those colors in his performances. A perfect example, for me, is to play the “White Mass” and “Black Mass” sonatas (Nos. 7 & 9) back to back. None of the other pianists make quite as much of the first, apparently thinking it should be performed in a chaste manner, but Ponti does. More importantly, he is able to make a distinction, still playing intensely, between the “happy energy” of the Sonata No. 7 and the “sinister energy” of Sonata No. 9. This, to me, was an important element missing in the work most other pianists.

Therefore, I urge you to acquire this set via download MP3 or WAV files, open them up in Audacity, which is a free audio editor, or GoldWave, which only costs $50 (and is more user-friendly), re-equalize the tracks to your satisfaction, and burn the CDs. You’ll be glad you did. These are terrific performances.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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