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JOHN BELL YOUNG writes in defence of Scriabin

 << Continued from yesterday 

Much as those with no less uniformed ideas would like to believe, Scriabin is not about mathematical precision. As Sofronitsky made plain, rhythm in Scriabin is an elusive affair that demands exactitude, yes, but also fantasy and flexibility even more. Unlike Sofronitsky, and all the great Scriabininsts, Mr Boulez mistakes rhythm for meter. He is meticulous about the position of every note, and even its value, but at the same time compromises their rhythmic trajectory, that is, what they signify in relation to each other within the context of the whole. He allows no room for variants, and plays sequentially distributed material in the same way no matter how often it shows up. Sometimes the character of a sound must determine rhythmic priorities, such as the gradual fade-out of a lingering cadence or a succession of invariant harmonies, which depend on prolongation for tension. In the music of Scriabin, nothing is what it appears to be, and that is precisely the point that he misses. In music where the plasticity of rhythm is governed principally by harmonic orientation, Mr Boulez consistently ignores its ceremonial dimensions (which share much in common ideologically with liturgical music). Nor does he make any effort to understand just how Scriabin's idiosyncratic motivic gestuary (which is nothing if not specific) conveys his mystical ideology in sound. He would have been well advised, before recording this disc, to explore exactly what Scriabin meant when he told his friend Sabanyeef, and later (according to some sources) Rachmaninoff, during a rehearsal of Prometheus, that the interpreter must learn to 'walk around' his harmonies.

Mr Boulez's impotent Scriabin is neither mysterious nor sensual. It neither dances nor swaggers, sweats nor seduces. Russian it is not. On the contrary, it is French in the extreme for its over-rationalization of the obvious. He fails to grasp that, in order to illuminate the music's myriad colors and reveal its character, its rich polyphony demands both textural clarity and ambiguity. Where the savvy interpreter allows voices to hemorrhage smoke-like one into the other, Mr Boulez prefers to paint by number, as if the music were no more than a crossword puzzle the solution to which requires that one only connect the lines.

With Anatol Ugorski at the piano, Prometheus is anemic and rhythmically (but not metrically) all wrong; it wants desperately for radical dynamic contrasts and cumulative thrust. It' s an academic reading that once again betrays what can only be described as Mr Boulez's disdain for Scriabin. What he fails to understand here is that it is one gigantic mazurka. Under his baton, though, it might as well be his own ingenious and expressive Repons (DG 289457605), an extraordinary work that avails itself of a rather different aesthetic. But in Scriabin that aesthetic is thoroughly inappropriate. The concerto, also a large scale mazurka from beginning to end, fares no better in a streamlined, by-the-book reading. Mr Ugorsky is a competent but stiff, emotionally reticent player with a wooden tone who bangs in fortissimo. He sails through the work unimaginatively with little feel for fantasy. His playing is further undermined by Mr Boulez's pedestrian, lackluster and uninvolved accompaniments.

What a shame that Melodiya fell into disarray following Perestroika; Margarita Fyodorova's magical reading with the Moscow Radio Symphony under Fuat Mansurov remains the definitive recording of this concerto, notable for its wonderful sweep, color and grandeur. It would seem then that some people, like Fyodorova and Sofronitsky (and, among conductors, Mravinsky, Stokowski and Kondrashin) were born to play Scriabin. Mr Boulez is certainly not one of them.


Copyright © 24 January 2000 John Bell Young, USA


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