Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Scriabin's self-indulgent "Mystery"; Bax's triumphant Fifth Symphony


Self-indulgence from composers (when psychologically feminine) is possible, and one particular post-romantic work that may top them all in this regard is Alexander Scriabin’s “Mysterium” (or “Mystery” or “Universe”) project.  Scriabin finished enough of a first act that Soviet Composer Alexander Nemkin could “complete” it, presenting a forty-minute work for orchestra, piano, organ and choir. 
  
I have a “Russian Disc” of the piece with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Kiril Konrashin, with Alexei Lyubimov (piano), Irina Orolova (organ), and the Yurkpv Russian Choir.  The performance dates back to the early 1990s, just before the breakup of the Soviet Union.  The sound is a bit tubby.
  
The “Mystery” is thick, dense, and seems stylistically closer to French music than Viennese or what we usually perceive as Russian.  There are lots of massed, smoothed-over passages and whole tone scale effects.  I did not perceive much form in the music, although the chorus doesn’t come in until the end.  The movement does end loudly, on a B Major chord. 
  
The earlier Symphony Poem in D Minor (1897) is relatively lively, rather like a concert overture with a sonata structure, ending loudly in minor chords.
  
The Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra in A Minor (1888) is not as thick as we normally expect with Scriabin, and the effect of the piece is rather like that of Schumann.  
  
To me, Scriabin often seems repetitious.  The third symphony, “The Divine Poem” is a good example.  Yet, the end of that three movement work, in C Minor, is absolutely breathtaking.  The Fifth Symphony, “Prometheus” or “Poem of Fire”, which I have somewhere on an old Vox Turnabout, is somewhat like “Mystery” in style. 
  
I guess when one thinks of self-indulgence in music, one can ponder Gerard Grisey, who offers ruminations on the meaning of civilization in "Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil" (Dec. 9, 2010 here).

I’ve talked about the Symphony #5 in C# Minor by Sir Arnold Bax before, particularly on an Aug. 25, 2013 posting.  I do have the Chandos CD Bryden Thompson performing the work with the London Philharmonic in 1989.  It is paired with the three movement “Russian Suite”, the second movement (“Nocturne”) of which is orchestrated by Graham Parlett.
  
I first got to know Bax on some budget label (was it Nonesuch?) in the 1970s, and had a recording of this work while living in New York City.  I always thought of Bax as “very dour”.  But the Fifth, with the blazing trumph at the end, took hold.  I remember a particularly critical episode in my personal life in 1978, when I put the record on, hoping a particular person would call (at the time we had only landlines and answering machines) and interrupt me. 
  

The CD program notes that the slow introduction echoes the way Sibelius opens the slow movement of his Fifth Symphony (itself a work of significance to me at the time I graduated from high school) .  The main movement, “Allegre con fuoco) does a lot with the Mahlerian idea of major and minor becoming interchangeable, and yet there is always a slightly pastoral air, maybe out of the world of Vaughn Williams, with lots of parallel intervals and other church modes superimposed over the lush harmonies.  This is definitely “English music”.  The Lento continues the same mood, suggesting a wintry landscape, perhaps at a time of life where there is still great aspiration.  The Finale takes on an unusually (for Bax) Russian character, but it is the Epilogue that this crown of the work.  After slowing down, the music presents a majestic, complete with ground bass and lush harmonies, setting of “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”.  The theme grows more compact with strettos, until a final release, passing over a couple of subdominant chords and snarling brass, to crash down on C# octaves.  This is both an apocalypse and an affirmation of life.  I wonder if Prince William could have considered this Epilogue as a postlude for his wedding service in 2011. 

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