Gergiev Revisits Cosmic Scriabin, But Sans Ecstasy

The Barbican, the LSO's home in London, has some of the poorest acoustics of any major concert hall.
The Barbican, the LSO’s home in London, has some of the poorest acoustics of any major concert hall.

Scriabin: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2. Ekaterina Sergeeva, mezzo-soprano. Alexander Timchenko, tenor. London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Valery Gergiev. LSO Live LSO0770 (2 CDs). Total Time: 91.09.

Scriabin: Symphony No. 3, The Divine Poem. Symphony No. 4, The Poem of Ecstasy. London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev. LSO Live LSO0771. Total Time: 64.58.

By Paul E. Robinson

DIGITAL REVIEW — The best-known of Alexander Scriabin’s (1872-1915) five symphonies is undoubtedly No. 4, subtitled The Poem of Ecstasy. It is not actually a symphony at all, but rather a symphonic poem in one movement.

Valery Gergiev recorded all the Scriabin symphonies live with the LSO.
Valery Gergiev recorded all the Scriabin symphonies live with the LSO.

In 2001, Valery Gergiev made a superb recording of this work with the Kirov Orchestra (Philips 468 035), and so I was very much looking forward to his latest version, part of a cycle of all the Scriabin symphonies with the London Symphony (LSO). The new version does not eclipse the old, and the sound quality is only fair. Its best feature is the stellar playing of LSO principal trumpet Philip Cobb.

Scriabin was one of the more forward-looking Russian composers of the early 20th century. One can hear foreshadowing of Stravinsky’s The Firebird in Scriabin’s Symphony No. 2, and glimpses of Schoenberg in his later symphonies. Gradually, Scriabin moved from a late Romantic style into experiments with atonality and beyond. In his last years, he embraced the theosophy of Helen Blavatsky and veered off into mysticism.

His magnum opus was to be a gigantic seven-day performance piece called Mysterium, the premiere of which he specified should take place in the foothills of the Himalayas in India as a kind of Armageddon, after which the world would dissolve in bliss. Many of Scriabin’s friends came to wonder about his sanity as he became increasingly consumed with weird philosophical ideas. Scriabin was only 42 when he died. Who knows where his grandiose visions would have taken him had he lived longer. On meeting Scriabin in Paris in 1907, Rimsky-Korsakov commented, “But isn’t he going out of his mind with this religious-erotic craze of his? He’s getting near the madhouse, wouldn’t you say?”

ScriabiGergiev400Scriabin’s symphonies, which cover a period between 1899 and 1910, show a steady change in style toward the more dissonant and experimental. Symphony No. 5, known as Prometheus: The Poem of Fire, even calls for a new instrument, the color organ, on which different keys, when played, would project corresponding  colors into the hall. A new recording of this symphony by Gergiev and the LSO is expected to be released in the near future.

Symphony No. 1 in E major is in six movements, with two solo voices and a chorus in the last. It begins with a lovely, major-key pastoral movement, which reminds me of Delius. Later, there is a charming Mendelssohnian scherzo. The text of the finale written by Scriabin is a kind of hymn in praise of art. The music returns to the pastoral mood of the opening, but then builds to a fugal climax. In spite of some beautiful quiet moments, the symphony seems somewhat academic. Gergiev himself seems unimpressed with it, given his routine performance. Riccardo Muti and the Philadelphia Orchestra brought a wider range of expression to their 1985 recording, originally released by EMI (and later as Brilliant 92744).

Symphony No. 2 in C minor shows considerable progress. Still in a highly emotional late Romantic style, the composer’s craft is nevertheless more evident and the underlying restlessness of the music is shaped with greater skill. The first movement (Lento), with its languid clarinet and flute solos, and expressive imitations of same in cellos and basses, is exquisite. The march in the last movement sounds distinctly Mahlerian, although it does not completely fulfill its promise. Gergiev’s performance seems strangely lacking in energy. Both Vladimir Ashkenazy (Decca 452852) and Igor Golovschin (Naxos 8.553581) conducted far more committed and better-recorded performances.

LSO Live Scriabin Symphonies 3 and 4 GergievScriabin’s next symphony, The Divine Poem, is somewhat similar in conception to Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life). A portentous opening theme played by the trombones becomes a kind of calling card for the composer as he makes his way through “life’s struggles” (first movement), “delights” (second movement) and “divine play” (third movement). Apart from the egomaniacal conception of the piece, the music often sounds plodding and uninspiring. The climax at the end seems underwhelming for such a grandiose undertaking. Gergiev’s performance is again workmanlike rather than totally committed.

Of the four symphonies, The Poem of Ecstasy is the most successful. An inspired performance of the work can be a thrilling experience. The composer builds to the final peroration with consummate skill, and the addition of the organ in these last pages – Elgar did the same thing in the Enigma Variations really pushes the piece over the top. The Poem of Ecstasy is notable for the prominent role given to the trumpet; recordings can be rated on how well those solos are played.

Principal Trumpet, Phillip Cobb
Philip Cobb (LSO)

The stellar Philip Cobb became LSO’s principal trumpet in 2009 at 21. Among orchestral trumpet players active in the past half-century, none is more distinguished than Adolph Herseth of the Chicago Symphony. He appears on a 1990 recording (Chandos CHAN 8849) with Neeme Järvi conducting, and anyone interested in great trumpet playing needs to have this recording. Herseth taught many of the trumpet players who went on to take jobs in leading American orchestras, and one of them was Frank Kaderabek, who is simply fabulous on Riccardo Muti’s recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

On the whole these recordings of the Scriabin symphonies by Gergiev and the London Symphony disappoint. The LSO is playing better than ever these days and in Gergiev – recently retired as principal conductor – they had an authoritative interpreter of the Russian classics. But the Barbican, the orchestra’s home in London, has some of the poorest acoustics of any major concert hall. The London Symphony deserves better. Fortunately, Sir Simon Rattle, their incoming principal conductor, has made getting the LSO a new hall worthy of its well-earned reputation a top priority.

Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for, and