Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915)
"The Composer as Pianist"
The Welte Mignon Piano Rolls
Alexander Scriabin, rec. Moscow 1910
Prelude, Op. 11 no. 1 [0:53]
Prelude, Op. 11 no. 2 [1:47]
Poeme, Op. 32 no. 1 [3:29]
Etude, Op. 8 no. 12 [2:04]
Desir, Op. 57 no. 1 [1:32]
Prelude, Op. 22 no. 1 [1:16]
Mazurka, Op. 40 no. 2 [0:49]
Prelude, Op. 11 no. 13 [1:48]
Prelude, Op. 11 no. 14 [0:47]
Josef Lhevinne, rec. Freiburg 1906
Nocturne for the Left Hand, Op. 9 no. 2 [4:38]
Constantine Igumnoff, rec. Moscow 1910
Sonate Fantasie, Op. 19 no. 2, 1st Movement [6:35]
Alexander Goldenweiser, rec. Moscow 1910
Mazurka, Op. 40 no. 2 [1:02]
Austin Conradi, rec. New York 1921-22
Prelude, Op. 11 no. 5 [1:50]
Prelude, Op. 11 no. 3 [1:17]
Prelude, Op. 11 no. 4 [2:04]
Prelude, Op. 11 no. 6 [0:51]
Album Leaf, Op. 45 no. 1 [1:47]
Etude, Op. 2 no. 1 [3:26]
Leff Pouishnoff, rec. New York 1926
Desir, Op. 57 no. 1 [1:30]
Kresse Dansee, Op. 57 no. 2 [1:01]
Enigme, Op. 52 no. 2 [1:17]
Poeme, Op. 32 no. 1 [3:33]
Magdeleine Brard, rec. New York 1925
Nocturne for the Left Hand, Op. 9 no. 2 [5:16]
Pierian 0018 [50:33]
I have a long-deleted Russian Season disc of Alexander Scriabin's piano
music played by Samuel Feinberg, Vladimir Sofronitsky, Heinrich Neuhaus,
Alexander Goldenweiser and Scriabin himself. Given the commanding line-up
of artists, it is one of my most treasured recordings and has the complete
taste of authenticity. Of course, the sound can be problematic, but to
listen to these Russian titans of the keyboard is a privilege as well
as a compelling listening experience.
When playing a disc such as The Russian Season one, I sometimes wonder
how the early 20th century pianists would sound with up-to-date sonics.
This is where the Welte-Mignon digital recording system enters the
picture, for it represents the closest that we can get to hearing these
historical performances in modern sound. Introduced in 1904, the
Welte-Mignon digital process allows us to hear an exceptional level of
detail without any trace of sound distortion. To this reviewer, the
results are amazing in that a performance recorded in the early 1900's
can sound as if it is being played this very day just a few feet away.
It all sounds too good to be true, and the fact is that the Welte-Mignon
system is not perfect. Critics claim that this system does not accurately
reproduce performances; my particular reservation is that it tends to
smooth-out the musical edges and contours, and a prime example comes
from a comparison of the Scriabin performances on the Russian Season and
Pierian discs. Eight of the nine pieces on the Pierian are also on the
Russian Season, and Scriabin's readings are more sharply etched on the
latter. So, there is a trade-off that needs to be considered by prospective
Having said the above, the greatest difference between historical and
piano roll recordings is one of orientation. With the Russian Season
disc, the listener is transported back to Scriabin's era with all its
sonic limitations; the Pierian disc transports Scriabin to the current-day
listener's sound world. Frankly, I consider both orientations revelatory
and essential for Scriabin enthusiasts.
Of course, the two discs give us much insight as to how Scriabin played
his own music and why deviating significantly from his recorded examples
diminishes his compositions. As wonderful as it is to hear Richter or
Sofronitsky play Scriabin, there is a tremendous 'rush' when listening
to the composer perform his own music: the intensity of his melancholy,
the under-currents of tension that make the ensuing emotional outbursts
logical and compelling, the prevalent cross-rhythms, and the playfulness
of his interpretations.
Although the performers on the Pierian disc are not uniformly of the
star-studded variety found on the Russian Season disc, but I can assure
readers that each one is a superb advocate for Scriabin's music. The
legendary Josef Lehevinne needs no introduction, and his performance of
the Nocturne for the Left Hand is a stunning example of lush romanticism.
The Nocturne is also played by Magdeleine Brard who gained entry to the
Paris Conservatory in 1914 at the tender age of eleven; she became Alfred
Cortot's favorite student and toured the United States with the Orchestra
of the Paris Conservatory in 1919. Her reading of the Nocturne largely
eschews Lhevinne's romantic approach for a more powerful presentation
with very demonstrative accenting.
Born in 1873, Constantine Igumnoff studied under Taneyev, Arensky, and
Ippolitov-Ivanov at the Moscow Conservatory. Although best known as a
professor at the Conservatory for almost 50 years, his playing of 1st
Movement of the Sonate Fantasie reveals a deep connection for Scriabin's
volatile nature, exquisite lyricism, and powerful cross-rhythms. This
is definitely a performance not to be missed.
Alexander Goldenweiser's artistry is represented by his performance
of Scriabin's Mazurka, Op. 40/2 that is also played by the composer.
Goldenweiser was an important figure in promoting the Russian school of
piano playing, being a professor and the eventual director of the Moscow
Conservatory for many years. A comparison of his Mazurka performance
with that of Scriabin's is quite illuminating. Scriabin is quick,
impetuous, and very playful, while Goldenweiser adopts a slower and more
stately presentation. Although I have to give the nod to Scriabin, the
Goldenweiser account has a cosmopolitan and mature nature that is alluring
and glows with confidence.
Leff Pouishnoff, born into an aristocratic Russian family, was an
exceptional Scriabinist. He graduated in 1910 from the Petrograd
Conservatory after studying with Rimsky-Korsakov, Glazunov, and Liadov.
His first concert tour was as a partner for Leopold Auer, and highly
successful tours in London and the United States followed in the 1920's.
Of his four piano rolls on the disc, the Poeme and Desir compare quite
well with Scriabin's own performances. Actually, they are similar except
that Scriabin is a little more playful and mysterious. Most important,
both pianists splendidly bring out the harmonic adventure of the pieces.
Aside from the Scriabin piano rolls, it is the playing of Austin Conradi
that I most treasure on the disc. An American, he was raised and lived
most of his life in Baltimore, teaching at the Peabody Institute. This
is my first acquaintance with Conradi's playing, and I am amazed with
his affinity for Scriabin's sound world. The performances are steeped
in rapture and sensuality, and the grief he conveys in the Prelude, Op.
11/4 and the Op. 2 Etude is overwhelming. As for determination, his
granite strength in the Prelude, Op. 11/6 bespeaks a mighty edifice as
well as primitive abandon.
Don's Conclusions: The non-profit Pierian label has given us an
enlightening and, dare I say, magical recording that every Scriabin
enthusiast needs to have. Although it can be used as a reference and
historical document, the best thing to do with this disc is simply listen
to the wonderful music in utterly compelling performances. Personally,
I consider myself most fortunate to own both the Pierian and Russian
Season discs, feeling that I have knocked on the doors of Heaven and
gained entry. Without doubt, the Pierian disc has been the most rewarding
I have encountered this year.
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