Alexeev’s Superb Scriabin

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WAP 2022SCRIABIN: Waltzes: in F min., Op. 1; in Ab, Op. 38. 3 Pieces for Piano, Op. 2. Mazurkas: Op. 3 (10), Op. 25 (9), Op. 40 (2). Allegro Appassionato, Op. 4. 2 Nocturnes: Op. 5. Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-10. Impromptus: Op. 7 (2), Op. 10 (2), Op. 14 (2). Études: Op. 8 (12), Op. 42 (8), Op. 65 (3). Prelude & Nocturne, Op. 9. Preludes: Op. 11 (24), Op. 13 (6), Op. 15 (5), Op. 16 (5), Op. 17 (7), Op. 22 (4), Op. 27 (2), Op. 31 (4), Op. 33 (4), Op. 35 (3), Op. 37 (4), Op. 39 (4), Op. 38 (4), Op. 67 (2), Op. 74 (5). Impromptus: Op. 7 (2), Op. 10 (2), Op. 12 (2), Op. 14 (2). Allegro de Concert pour Piano, Op. 18. Polonaise, Op. 21. Fantasy in B min., Op. 28. Deux poèmes, Op. 32. Poème tragique, Op. 34. Poème satanique pour piano, Op. 36. Poème pour Piano, Op. 41. Feuillet d’Album in F#. 2 Poems for Piano, Op. 44. 3 Pieces, Op. 45. Scherzo in C, Op. 46. Scherzo for Piano in C, Op. 46. Quasi Valse, Op. 47. 3 Pieces for Piano, Op. 49. 4 Pieces, Op. 51. Trois Morceaux, Op. 52. Quatre Morceau, Op. 56. 2 Pieces, Op. 57. Albumblatt, Op. 58. 2 Pieces, Op. 59. Poème-Nocturne, Op. 61. 2 Poems, Op. 63. Poèmes, Op. 69 (2). Deux Poèmes, Op. 71. Vers la flamme, Op. 72. Deux danses, Op. 73 / Dmitri Alexeev, pno / Brilliant Classics 95913

The musical journey of Alexander Scriabin remains one of the most fascinating in history, beginning as a devoted acolyte of Frydryk Chopin and ending up as the creator of music bordering on the atonal, using pentatonic scales, extended chords that reached almost to the breaking point of atonality, his famous “mystic chord” and a color-coded keyboard to indicate the colors he saw in his music (in addition to all else, Scriabin was a synethesiast). As his journey progressed, his mind expanded more and more; at the end, he was working a massive, three-day orchestral work titled Mysterium which he felt would transport mankind to a new level of consciousness and thus transform it.

Scriabin’s color keyboard

As a pianist, the central focus of his work was that which he wrote for the keyboard, but as we know, not all Scriabin performances are created equal. Some are terribly exciting, some are deadly boring, and most of the others fall somewhere in between. Russian-born pianist Dmitri Alexeev, who has spent most of his career in Great Britain, has made it his business to research Scriabin as thoroughly as he could, and two factors in particular influenced his approach to his music. The first of these was that, as a small man with small hands and not much physical power in his playing, Scriabin “captivated the listener through his ability to enhance his sound with an extraordinary range and gradation of color…his fingers seemingly plucked the sound from the piano keys…as if his hands flew over the keyboard barely touching it.” The second was that, as a synethsiast, he always played with subtly shifting dynamics and color. I truly believe that Alexeev is on the right track simply because Vladimir Horowitz, one of the most notorious keyboard-pounders in history, played Scriabin with a far lighter touch and a great deal of keyboard color when he recorded some of his works in the early 1950s—and Horowitz was fortunate enough to have heard Scriabin plays his own music in person shortly before the composer’s death.

The result, as you can hear in these astonishing recordings, is even from the earliest works a mixture of Chopinesque delicacy with typically Russian feeling and a straightforward musical style…quite different from most other pianists, who approach early Scriabin as if it were Chopin, not understanding that what Scriabin learned from Chopin’s scores was transformed in his mind into a more Slavic sensibility in his own music. For an excellent example of what I mean, listen to Russian-born pianist Nadia Reisenberg’s Chopin, or even some of the Chopin recordings of Shura Cherkassky. Yes, there is delicacy and poetry in them, but not the over-Romanticized goop that you hear in so many other pianists’ readings of these scores. And this is exactly how Alexeev plays the early Scriabin works on this set.

AlexeevSadly, I hadn’t known that, over the years between 2008 and 2018, Alexeev was recording this entire oeuvre of Scriabin’s music. The only disc I saw, and reviewed, was the very last one of the complete Preludes (Brilliant Classics 95651, reviewed on January 7, 2019), and that was because I formerly wrote for a major classical magazine that didn’t offer me any Scriabin discs. I was their “Chopin and Liszt” girl, so that’s what was sent to me in abundance. It got to the point where I came to loathe the music of both so much that I still have trouble listening to it more than once every couple of years.

The original recordings were released on single discs grouped by genre: Preludes, Mazuekas, Sonatas, Etudes, Poèmes, etc. For this boxed set reissue, they are wisely grouped chronologically by opus number, running from Op. 1 to Op. 74, over eight CDs, and they are selling at a marvelous bargain price. Amazon has it for $34.99, which breaks down to $4.37 per disc, while Presto Music has it for only $27.75 which is roughly $3.47 per disc. At that price, it is indeed prime musical champagne at the cost of domestic lager.

My general impression of Alexeev’s performances, even (perhaps especially) in the first two CDs which represent Scriabin’s earliest compositions, is that he does an extraordinary job of capturing the essence of Scriabin’s own piano style by reining in his own more powerful tendencies. Moreover, unlike Michael Ponti, whose Scriabin recordings are terribly exciting but not exact in tempo or phrasing, or Matthew Bengtsson, whose Scriabin is exact in tempo and phrasing but only moderately interesting, Alexeev manages to give you the best of both worlds. The pearly delicacy of the soft passages is complemented by the thrilling ring of the keyboard in the others, and he achieves, better than anyone else I’ve ever heard (even Ruth Laredo of sainted memory), a wider range of color within a relatively narrow dynamic range.

Moreover, by playing early Scriabin like this, Alexeev is able to make a much smoother transition to the later Scriabin of the “Black Mass,” “Vers la flamme,” the pentatonic scales and edgy, almost-atonal harmonies. The one is the outgrowth of the other; they were not two entirely separate and discrete Scriabins working against one another. In a way, his traversal of the composer’s complete piano oeuvre is similar to that of Natalia Trull’s exemplary Prokofiev or Michael Korstick’s Beethoven sonatas. It is the perfect mixture of intellectual research and personal passion in performance.

In a piece like the Mazurka Op. 3 No. 10, for instance, one hears a proper mazurka rhythm (after all, the Poles aren’t that far removed from Russian culture that they don’t know what each other’s folk dances are supposed to sound like) but also an extraordinary variety of color and almost infinitesimal gradations of volume. I’m sure it must have taken Alexeev an extraordinarily long time to arrive at just the right balance of touch, tone and pacing to produce such a performance, yet he manages to make it, and most of the others on this set, sound spontaneous and natural. In the early Allegro Appassionato, Op. 4, we can already hear the seeds of Scriabin’s future music to come in Alexeev’s approach to playing this piece. Alexeev also brings a sense of importance to the Piano Sonata No. 1, clearly approaching it as such and not as a mere continuation of the preceding individual, smaller works; and already by this time, one can hear, in proper context, just how different his approach to this was in terms of both musical construction and feeling.

With all that being said, however, the first four CDs require much patience from those listeners who, like me, have had their fill of Chopinesque music. There’s only so much that even a genius like Scriabin could say in these pieces, and even a dedicated and meticulous interpreter such as Alexeev can only make so much lemonade of many of these works. As a reviewer, I had to listen to all of them in order, up to three CDs a day, and by the third disc—despite those individual works that definitely show a clear difference from his model, Chopin—I was starting to contract Type 2 diabetes from so much sweet, tonal music. (And apparently I’m not alone; near the end of his short life, Scriabin wrote to a friend that “it becomes harder and harder for me to pretend that I like my earlier pieces.”) Yet ironically, though Scriabin’s early work is clearly based on the Chopin model, it’s more virile and interesting music. There are more dynamic contrasts and more inner rhythmic movement going on under the surface.

By the time you reach CD 5, the music is definitely changing, particularly after the Op. 27 Preludes. The harmony slowly but surely becomes more adventurous, which adds interest to each piece from this point on, but the interesting thing is that Alexeev maintains the same combination of delicacy and coolness mixed with some fire and brimstone, thus indicating a smoother transition rather than a completely different aesthetic approach. The second of the two Poèmes Op. 32 is less poetic than reminiscent of his orchestral Poem of Ecstasy.

One reason why some listeners may not care for or undervalue Alexeev’s performances is that his piano is not recorded clearly. All of these recordings were made in Champs Hill, West Sussex or Wood Hall in London, and I know from long experience that the Brits like to soften the sound of pianos in their recordings (for whatever reason I have no idea), but Scriabin, being Russian, favored a bright piano sonority, and this is sadly lacking on most of these recordings. If you order the set via download rather than physical discs, I recommend your boosting the treble by at least 0.6 db, which will give the recordings a much more realistic sound. (The only recording I heard that had a natural piano sound as is was the Polonaise Op.21 on CD 4.)

One of the few real disappointments in this set is the way Alexeev plays the Piano Sonata No. 5. This is far too slow overall, and the explosive opening is defused not only by the slow tempo but also by what seems to me a hesitancy on his part to commit to lighting the fuse so early in the piece, which I feel was a big mistake—yet he is the only pianist who follows the direction “Sotto voce” in the first two bars before the crescendo to forte, so maybe he’s on to something. But for this and a few other sonatas we have Vladimir Horowitz’ recordings, and these are extremely close in feeling and phrasing to what we can hear of Scriabin himself on old piano rolls.

Otherwise, I’d say that Alexeev comes close to playing these works the way Scriabin is described as playing them, but at this juncture we can’t be sure. Contemporary accounts of his playing repeat the same mantra, that when he played the music seemed to take wings and float above the piano whereas others, such as Rachmaninov, were mercilessly “earthbound.” Scriabin left no commercial studio recordings, but roughly a dozen pieces recorded on Hupfeld Phonola piano rolls. These captured a little of the nuance in dynamics that these pianists used, but not much; mostly, they just showed you the tempo and phrasing that he used.. The magical light touch is missing, and of course Scriabin made a great deal out of the delicacy of his playing because, when he did increase the volume, the difference sounded monumental whereas if he played a bit louder in his piano passages he would have had to attack the keyboard much more aggressively than he was physically able to do in order to make the same dynamics contrasts. Recently, an earlier piano roll made for Hupfeld of his Op. 19 Sonata-Fantasie has surfaced, and this has much the same defects, but in the second movement (“Presto”), Scriabin plays it so fast that there are smudged and blurred notes in the performance. Since he was acknowledged, even by those who hated his music, to be a master virtuoso, and there was no reason for him to rush the performance (a piano roll could run as long as the artist wanted it to run…it wasn’t a record with ah three- or four-minute limit), one can only assume that he meant for those notes to be blurred as an indication of haste. But no one else plays it this way, not even Alexeev. The point seems to me that Scriabin was willing to take enormous risks in playing his own music in order to bring the point home.

Alexeev, on the other hand, is a powerful player, and although he reins in his more virtuosic tendencies on these recordings they still come through occasionally. In this respect, his playing of Scriabin is just a bit more refined than that of Vladimir Horowitz who, as I mentioned earlier, curbed his worst tendencies to pound the keyboard when recording Scriabin’s music. (His father, Alexander Horowitz, was apparently a great piano virtuoso in his day and thus was able to persuade Scriabin to let his son come and hear him play.) Nevertheless, I believe that he comes the closest to replicating the way Scriabin played his own music, and I base this on the amount of rubato that both used in their performances, something that has virtually disappeared from modern classical pianism. That is one of the things that comes through clearly on the Scriabin piano rolls, his use of rubato effects, and although Alexeev does not copy him exactly he uses a similar approach.

Except for the Sonata No. 5, then, the performances contained herein are consistently excellent and are in line with Alexeev’s view of Scriabin. Although he avoids the occasional headlong rush which was apparently (to judge from the piano rolls) part and parcel of the way Scriabin played his own works, I find it an intelligent, well-balanced and frequently exciting approach. This is now my go-to set for Scriabin’s piano works.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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