Rachmanov Plays Scriabin


SCRIABIN: 3 Pieces, Op. 2. Études, Op. 8: Nos. 2, 4, 5, 7, 9-12. 2 Pieces for the Left Hand, Op. 9. Preludes, Op. 13: Nos. 1, 3, 4. 5. Preludes, Op. 16. Piano Sonata No. 2, 4, 9 & 10. Preludes, Op. 22. Fantasie in B min. 2 Poems, Op. 32. Waltz in Ab, Op. 38. 2 Mazurkas, Op. 40. Études, Op. 40: Nos. 2-5. 3 Pieces, Op. 45. 4 Pieces, Op. 51: No. 1. 2 Pieces, Op. 59. 3 Études, Op. 65. 2 Dances, Op. 73 / Dmitry Rachmanov, pno / Cambria 1272

Cambria Records, a small U.S. label from California, has here released a 2-CD set of Scriabin’s piano music played by Dmitry Rachmanov, DMA Professor and Chair of Keyboard Studies at California State University He is also the Northridge President of the American Liszt Society of Southern California.

The publicity blurb for this 2-CD set states that Rachmanov is presenting the complete solo piano works of Scriabin, but not only is this set not identified as Vol. 1, as you can see he doesn’t even present the sets of music here complete, omitting four of the 12 Op. 8 Études, only four of the six Op. 13 Preludes, and just the first of the 4 Op. 51 pieces. After emailing Prof. Rachmanov, he provided the answer:

…while this audio recording represents just those works recorded some time ago and in part only now being released to commemorate the composer’s sesquicentennial, more recently I have been working on the Scriabin videography of his piano works, and so far (it is an ongoing project) it has covered a much larger slice of the composer’s works, though it is not complete yet.

On balance, I find that his performances of early Scriabin strikes exactly the right balance between the more lyrical, Chopin-like side of the composer and the daring visionary yet to come. My readers know that I have been round and round the mulberry bush on Scriabin ever since Ruth Laredo’s very fine set of the complete piano sonatas (including some incidental pieces like Vers la flamme) way back in the 1970s, and have liked different things I’ve heard in almost all of them. Insofar as capturing the excitement of Scriabin’s music, I have been most fond of the set by Vincenzo Maltempo on Piano Classics and the complete piano music as recorded for Vox, also many years ago in the ‘70s, of his complete piano music, but the Ponti set has a very thin, tinny sound and I think he sometimes overdoes the heat. On balance—and I stress that term—I’ve eventually settled on Dmitri Alexeev’s complete set of Scriabin’s solo piano music on Brilliant Classics, but felt there was some room for improvement based on the few piano rolls that Scriabin himself left us.

Rachmanov provides the requisite muscle in the early works. The important thing to remember regarding Scriabin is that, although he was indeed heavily infatuated by Chopin in his early years, he was already leaning towards something entirely different which began to emerge at around the time of his second and third piano sonatas. Indeed, in later years he wrote to a friend that he could scarcely bear to hear his earlier music any more because it did not represent what he had become.

In addition to Scriabin’s own recordings, my other gold standard in his music is the small set of recordings made in the early 1950s by Vladimir Horowitz. Normally I avoid Horowitz like the plague; I’ve often referred to him as “the screamin’ demon of the keyboard,” a man who pounded out music so relentlessly and so insensitively that he drives me crazy, but there are a few recordings and performances I except from this judgment (his early recording of the Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 3, which he coached with the composer and his live performances—not the studio recordings—that he gave with his father-in-law, Toscanini, who curbed some of his more exhibitionist tendencies), and the Scriabin recordings are among them because he actually heard Scriabin play his own music when he was about 10 years old and the impression stayed with him.

All of the early music on this set is played with great intensity, yet still has a bound legato feeling, forward momentum and highly musical phrasing.. I found myself riveted by every note and phrase he plays in the music from this period.

It’s difficult to point out highlights because much of it is so good, but he makes the most I’ve ever heard of Scriabin’s earlier music, which is basically everything before the Op. 30 Sonata No. 4. Rachmanov almost makes it sound as if he had written this music himself; there is clearly enough lyricism for such pieces as the Op. 9, No. 1 Prelude, but even in the quieter pieces there is an undercurrent, you might say, of tension bordering on a sort of nervous energy that clearly presages the later works to come, and I for one do not believe that Scriabin changed his approach to music so much as he simply refined and modernized his style of writing.

For a microcosm of what I mean, listen to how he performs the second of the five Op. 16 preludes, invigorating the musical line with a slightly syncopated reading of the repeated chords which produces that somewhat “nervous” energy I alluded to. This is a first-rate interpretation, one that completely changes the Chopin-like elements of the music to make them sound more Scriabin-like. Then, in the fourth prelude in this set, he uses the very slow tempo to project a morbid, almost funeral march-like feeling to the music…again, lifting it out of the mundane and making it sound expressive to a very high degree.

And yet, when Rachmanov gets into the “real” Scriabin of the later works, I had some serious reservations. These performances just seemed to me a bit too fast, a bit too highly pressured. His phrasing becomes much choppier, even more so than Ponti, and the tempos are rushed just a bit too much. Thus I am a bit leery about accepting these performances as the most valid or definitive, but exciting they most certainly are, and you may completely disagree with me.

So what started out, for me, as a very enthusiastic response to Rachmanov’s performances of the early Scriabin became rather negative as he moved into the later works. To my ears, this is not only not the way Scriabin should be played but also not the way any late-Romantic Russian music should be played. But as I said, in the earlier pieces, he is simply phenomenal.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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