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Alexander SCRIABIN (1872-1915)
Symphony No. 1 in E major, Op. 26 (1899/1900) [49.03]
Symphony No. 5 (Prometheus: The Poem of Fire), Op. 60 (1910) [20.23]
Kirill Gerstein (piano)
Alisa Kolosova (mezzo-soprano)
Alexey Dolgov (tenor)
Oslo Philharmonic Choir & Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko
rec. 2017 Konserthus, Oslo

The last of three albums in the acclaimed Scriabin series on Lawo, this is a valuable release containing a pair of Scriabin symphonies, separated by a decade. Coming from each end of the composer’s compositional span of orchestral works they inhabit entirely different soundworlds. His Symphony No. 1 is one of Scriabin’s first orchestral works, written during a period teaching at the Moscow Conservatory. Also included is Symphony No. 5 (Prometheus: The Poem of Fire) one of his final works, commenced in Brussels and first performed on his return to Russia following a period of exile in Western Europe.
Prior to the Symphony No. 1 Scriabin had mainly written only piano pieces, heavily in the style of Chopin, and in 1898 a short orchestral work Reverie, Op. 24. The generously proportioned six- movement Symphony No. 1 inhabits the style of Liszt and Wagner rather than that of fellow-countryman Glinka, founder of the Russian nationalist school. In 1900 when the conductor Anatoly Liadov introduced the work, to a lukewarm reception, the final movement with chorus and two vocal soloists was omitted.

A work overflowing with fascinating and inventive ideas, Petrenko ensures that the gratifying surface warmth has an undertow of melancholy. Right from the opening movement Lento, Petrenko’s judicious tempi maintain a glorious wash of sound and develop a tense and perplexing sense of awe. The opening to the symphony is particularly stunning, like a spectacular sunrise over a mountain range. Outstanding is the weight and intensity of the dramatic Allegro drammatico, beautifully developed, feeling like a slowly gathering storm. Petrenko admirably generates an abundance of atmosphere in the Lento while the contrasting Vivace has a light, rather witty character. In the penultimate movement (Allegro), the recurring lush romantic theme combines with gratifying waves of surging passion. Reminding me of the comparable closing movements in Liszt’s Dante and Faust symphonies, the extravagant choral Finale contains some gorgeously expressive and engaging singing of the highest order from the Russian-born soloists mezzo-soprano Alisa Kolosova and tenor Alexey Dolgov as they exalt the eternal glory of art. First entering at point 8.44 the imposing Oslo Philharmonic Choir combines with the soloists to remarkable effect, resulting in a conclusion with a tumultuous outburst of passion.

From the catalogue I have selected to audition a pair of excellent recordings of the Symphony No. 1 that have proved popular for some time with Scriabin collectors, plus a more recent recording. First the Philadelphia Orchestra under Riccardo Muti recorded in 1985 at Memorial Hall, Philadelphia on EMI and reissued on a Brilliant Classics set of the complete Scriabin symphonies. In the choral movement of the Muti, the soloists are Stefania Toczyska (mezzo), and Michael Myers (tenor) augmented by the Westminster Choir. Another desirable set has Vladimir Ashkenazy conducting the Deutsches Sinfonie-Orchester, Berlin, recorded in 1994 at Schauspielhaus (Konzerthaus), Berlin on Decca. Ashkenazy is joined by Brigitte Balleys (mezzo-soprano), Sergej Larin (tenor) and Rundfunkchor Berlin. Recorded live in 2014 London Symphony Orchestra under Valery Gergiev excel with an insightful performance at Barbican Hall. Soloists Ekaterina Sergeeva (mezzo-soprano), Alexander Timchenko (tenor) join the London Symphony Chorus on LSO Live (SACD). This Petrenko account is first class and can stand confidently alongside the finest accounts.

With the tone poem Prometheus: The Poem of Fire, sometimes known as Symphony No. 5, Scriabin had abandoned tonality to use his own individual harmonic language. This single movement score for large orchestra and prominent part for solo piano shapes a version of the Prometheus legend from Greek mythology, using the theme of mankind (piano) pitted against the cosmos (orchestra). With the composer at the piano it was Serge Koussevitzky who conducted the first performance of Prometheus in 1911 at Moscow.

Prometheus is an unconventional and complex work where glowing passages of delicate beauty are opposed by tense dissonance and gnarled harmonies. There’s a special authority to Petrenko’s conducting, maintaining a robust forward course from the first note to the last, in a work saturated with swirling orchestral colours. Gerstein produces the elevated level of performance to which I have become accustomed. In addition, it’s hard not to single out the expanded brass section, particularly the trumpets, who sound magnificent throughout. From late in the work at point 17.01 the entry of the wordless chorus adds a significant layer of atmosphere and colour as the work progresses to the composer’s intended realisation of nirvana.

Competition in the catalogue for recordings of Prometheus is strong but Petrenko makes a strong case with this stunning account. Rivals include the above dramatic 1990 account from the Philadelphia Orchestra under Riccardo Muti with pianist Dmitri Alexeev on Brilliant Classics. Also worthy of acclaim, is the evergreen account from Lorin Maazel conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra and featuring pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy from 1971 at Kingsway Hall, London on Decca. Also commendable is the above-mentioned Decca recording that sees Vladimir Ashkenazy conducting the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin in 1994 at Schauspielhaus, Berlin with Peter Jablonski (piano) on Decca.

Recorded for Lawo under studio conditions at Oslo Concert Hall the sound engineers have excelled providing Petrenko with satisfying clarity, presence and balance. The booklet essay written by Thomas Erma Møller is helpful and easy to read. It’s disappointing that the relatively short text complete with an English translation of the final movement of the Symphony No. 1 is not included in the booklet.

Rounding off a valuable Scriabin series, these performances from Vasily Petrenko and Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra are top-drawer and deserve inclusion in any serious collection.

Michael Cookson


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