Scriabin Piano Sonatas Glemser Naxos 8.555368

Déjà Review: this review was first published in April 2001 and the recording is still available.

Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915)
Piano Sonatas Volume 2
Sonata No 3, Op 23
Sonata No 10, Op 70
Sonata in E-flat minor (1889)
Poème-Nocturne, Op 61
Vers la flamme, Op 72
Bernd Glemser (piano)
rec. 1997, Radio Concert Hall, Lugano, Switzerland
Naxos 8.555368 [65]

The 1889 Sonata in E-flat minor is a substantial rarity. But Bernd Glemser is certainly worth exploring for more than this. A little after Naxos recorded the hugely successful two CDs of Scriabin’s complete Preludes (complete with those of his tragic son Julian) with Evgeny Zarafiants, Glemser began a survey of the sonatas. His disc of Prokofiev’s Sonatas 1, 3 and 4 was enthusiastically received; not least because in all these releases the sound quality is greatly improved.

The opening Third, in four movements from 1898, expresses states of the soul, the culminating point of Scriabin’s hyper-romanticism, and the largest of his sonatas after the youthful First. Here, Glemser plays it almost as fast (18.58) as Sofronitsky and Ogdon, only slightly slower in the scherzo, still faster than most. Glemser’s approach, however, in the opening movement seems, despite this, more fragmentary, and less drammatico than the marking exhorts. The three-note figure needs expressing theatrically but without greasepaint. Glemser is a little too soft-grained, too sensitively mannered. Scriabin never was at this stage of his development, or at any point in his life. Others, like the acclaimed Graham Scott or the absolutely clear-fingered Ashkenazy (Decca-brightly recorded), take the movement slower, but maintain energy. In some respects Glemser’s willingness to explore byways recalls the surprisingly slower traversal by Horowitz in 1956, or the incisive granite-like aplomb of Fergus-Thompson, slowest of all but with the finest acoustic. Both these players, and to some extent Scott and Ashkenazy, allow filigrees of the secondary subjects to eddy and gild, but never tarry. Horowitz maintains a clear nervous pulse despite his length, and understands the mercurial alternations of mood that allow him to quicksilver about with tempi and agogic sleights of hand. Only Sofronitsky, Ogdon and Ashkenazy suggest that the allegretto scherzo’s accelerated three-note theme (from the opening) shouldn’t quite sound as gallumphing as it does, a slightly bumptious ‘young soul’ on new adventures, shouting (one imagines) ‘a genius’ with a first moustachioed growth. Glemser here is as good as anybody other than these three.

Glemser shows similar qualities in the andante, sure and well-shaded, without the pulse of genius that Sofronitsky tortures out of it, or Ogdon, slower for once in his love of extremes, with a similar beat that holds the attention. Taking a further extreme, Fergus-Thompson, also holds the attention with his shadowing, raising and lowering of tempi and temperature to colour the andante’s premature ejaculatory bliss. At points here he almost halts, yet his control never falters. He makes discoveries no-one else quite manages, with connections to the opening phrase laid out beautifully. Glemser is slower again in the rondo-like Presto con fuoco that ends in wailing adolescent despair, though here he never loses the dramaturge as he seemed once or twice in danger of doing in the first movement. He doesn’t quite manage the true elemental, quite demonic ferocity that Sofronitsky above all brings. He also misses by a shading the incredible velocity of Ogdon. Listening again to Ogdon, one realises his unsung genius in this repertoire. Ashkenazy’s overview of the sonatas is as fine in a different way, and in 1, 6, and 8 (the last recorded, in 1984) he reigns supreme unless one reaches back for Richter’s 1953 Sixth.

The Tenth, from the summer of 1913, is a different matter. Glemser opens with some exquisite shading, well-captured again in this fine-sounding disc (not a platitude alas with Naxos, though happily almost beginning to be). His releasing and gathering of tempi are judicious and elegantly clear – and this music needs clarity. He enjoys moulding a more hesitant set of insects (‘the sun’s kisses’ Scriabin called them), one characterising of this work. In C major, it owns a kind of blinding ecstasy (Ian Pace communicated this in his homage to Ogdon recital at the Wigmore, 9th February 2001) not far removed from Vers la flame. The young Scriabin specialist Yuri Paterson-Olenich takes everything in close-up at 15.38, on his microcosmed Steinway C. The sonata doesn’t quite wind out of itself at this range; but his account remains fascinating. Otherwise, only Fergus-Thompson, acoustically flattered, takes longer (at 13.29) than Glemser (13.09), separating and contrasting the trill sections and even then unskeining these to a compelling hallucinated account. Ogdon’s explodes at 10.40 yet utterly convinces in its rapid alternations that blend to blind. Horowitz’s is the most beautifully articulated, terraced with competing voices through each hand, if dryly recorded (12.03). The climax is shattering and remains the benchmark, yet Ogdon in his way, and Ashkenazy, seven seconds slower than Horowitz, in better sound, remain authoritative too. I’ve not heard Roger Woodward’s accounts, or Donna Amato’s, incidentally. The biggest omission above is Marc-André Hamelin’s set, after cool reviews dissuaded me from listening to such a luxury!

Vers la flamme from 1914 is very fine, faster than most, without gradually winding from silence in the way that Ogdon (who takes longest to unwind) or several others do. Sofronitsky here (in authentically smoky mono that somehow seems right) keeps up a gradual accelerando which, though he suddenly blasts the final stalking fifth figure before slowing it again, quite elegantly closes. This is the norm and Glemser, apart from his general velocity throughout, follows it with real clarity and strength. Those who don’t include the incandescent performance by Demidenko, and Ogdon. Paterson-Olenich lives dangerously, accelerating and slamming the brakes just in time (his authentically quirky, all-Scriabin disc is eminently worth acquiring). Yet perhaps most revelatory is Fergus-Thompson whose beautifully sprung and phenomenally shaded account left the strongest impression after Sofronitsky’s and Horowitz’s – whose equally reined-in menace and demonic glittering ecstasy remain in the spirit realms. Sofronitsky meanwhile suffers like a giant, and Demidenko’s excitement vies with Ogdon as a must-hear.

The revelatory sonata in E-flat minor is remarkable for a 17 year old, not so much in its most attractive Chopinesque slow movement, but in the way he extends the language of early preludes to sonata form, by way of layering, sudden episodic shifts, and very intricate, buzzing passage-work. This in one sense prefigures the mature Scriabin more than some of his popular early bon-bons like the Op 2/1. They also attest to his intensive technique, and small reach (just spanning an octave) and this last factor perhaps told against him when his junior by a year, Rachmaninov, gallingly beat him into second place in the 1892 Moscow Conservatory competition. Rachmaninov’s huge reach was a by-product of the Marplan’s heart disease that eventually killed him.

Glemser plays the Poème-Nocturne Op 61 with a true sense of its late provenance, releasing and pulling back the tempi as the teasing fluctus of a piece demands, a snake’s sallying and retraction. It’s accented and shaded as the bright acoustic allows, glittering back to its lair. The 1889 sonata makes this disc a mandatory acquisition for Scriabin completists, and worth hearing for the other works: a fine introduction. Yet Naxos is ironically not the cheapest road to the sonatas. These lie with the Ogdon EMI-Forté and Ashkenazy Decca sets, both generously coupled with wholly different short works, and both essential. Ogdon lives Scriabin the more dangerously, and his set contains extraordinary, disquieting revelations about Scriabin and that other very fine composer, John Ogdon. Ashkenazy’s set, acoustically cleaner-sounding but sometimes glassier, is a safer recommendation. Though only the late digital performances of 1, 6, and 8 completely satisfied reviewers when these works first appeared in 1989 (without the extras), with exemplary accounts of 9 and 10. Nos 2, 4, 5 and 7 were heavily criticised for sound that enhanced Ashkenazy’s clangorous vices in these works. Maybe. But I’d disagree about 3, and playing the set again feel the judgement isn’t quite fair. Still, Ogdon is the antidote.

Simon Jenner

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