A series of Scriabin’s symphonic works has evidently been intended since Valery Gergiev became Principal Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra some seven seasons ago. That said, the First Symphony (1900) – easily the least-often heard of the cycle – received an outing at the BBC Proms back in 2010 and this latest account exhibited a similar mixture of scrupulous preparation, free of mannerism or over-emphasis, yet one in which the work’s ultimate achievement falls short of its vaunting though never merely reckless ambition.
The six movements survey the extent of Russian Romanticism, while adding Liszt, Wagner and (as Andrew Huth pointed out in his programme note) César Franck for good measure. Its formal trajectory is less all-encompassing than might be thought: take away the outer movements, and a fairly regular symphony along the lines of Rimsky-Korsakov or Glazunov emerges. The opening Lento is preludial in nature, anticipating themes to be elaborated later while enveloping them in an aura more of somnolence than repose. Gergiev caught this perfectly, but the ensuing Allegro was too leisurely for an Allegro and emotionally too reined-in for its ‘drammatico’ marking. The ensuing Lento consequently felt too hard-pressed – Gergiev breezing through its voluptuous outer sections and playing down the quixotic mood-changes in-between. The winsome Vivace had both deftness and humour (not qualities that Scriabin often revisited), while the second Allegro had sufficient rhetoric not to seem short-winded.
The final Andante is the most problematic movement – Scriabin setting his own panegyric to the greatness of Art in which mezzo-soprano and tenor soloists exchange then combine in verse as rhythmically foursquare as they are melodically simplistic, with reminiscences of earlier themes introducing the chorus in a stolid fugal episode then a would-be grandiloquent peroration. A really intense performance might well overcome such shortcomings through its unequivocal fusing of means and ends, but not here. The soloists (who had no doubt rehearsed intensively during the first four movements – hence their belated and applause-creating entry) were both excellent – Ekaterina Sergeyeva focussed and lustrous in tone, Alexander Timchenko summoning real fervour, and the London Symphony Chorus singing with gusto its single line which is put through its academic paces on the way to a rousing close. Those unfamiliar with this gauche if often captivating piece hopefully enjoyed the encounter, yet it was difficult to avoid the feeling that Gergiev’s overly literal approach had failed to infuse it with the conviction necessary.
Following the interval with Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto (1861) made sense in that its six continuous sections develop the salient themes and motifs in a way that Scriabin was to attempt in the Symphony just heard. Not that such formal ingenuity was always evident from the present performance, in which Denis Matsuev hurtled through the piece with little consideration of its poetic and intimate aspects – concentrating on the barnstorming virtuosity that has led to both of Liszt’s piano concertos being undervalued as music. Gergiev gave Matsuev unstinting support, while the LSO did what it could with its occasional solos (eloquent cello-playing from Tim Hugh in the central ‘slow’ dialogue) – yet while Matsuev harried the final pages into submission, a sense of relief that it was finally over was hard to suppress.
Fortunately, the account of Scriabin’s The Poem of Ecstasy (1908, sometimes known as Symphony No.4) that followed got far closer to the heart of this particular matter. So much extraneous commentary has been written on the composer’s later music in general that the piece’s formal precision is too easily overlooked. Without adopting too earnest an approach, Gergiev pointed up its unfolding sonata design as it evolves from a handful of pithy and contrasted motifs. The brass-dominated climaxes were bracingly despatched (LSO trumpets – Philip Cobb in particular – making the most of their time in the spotlight), while the apotheosis never lost sight of the superimposing of its ideas with a poise and ingenuity worthy of Scriabin’s Austro-German contemporaries. Nor was Gergiev unwilling to allow those echoes of others (notably Debussy) their head. The heady closing bars were weighted almost to perfection – Scriabin’s alleged ‘sunrise’ can all too readily prove to be a false dawn – while the conductor’s assertive control over music can all too easily become flaccid was hardly to be doubted.
Overall, then, an impressive demonstration of the LSO’s skill in a work of which it has given numerous fine performances in recent years (Eötvös, Boulez). The Scriabin cycle continues in April (10 and 13), with further theosophical strivings and heaven-storming apotheoses all but guaranteed.