SCRIABIN:  Nuances.  Preparation for The Final Mystery (realized by Alexander Nemtin).  
Ernst Senff Chor/St. Petersburg Chamber Choir/Berlin Radio Symphony Orch/Vladimir Ashkenazy, cond. (with Alexei Lubimov, piano/Alexander Ghindin, piano/Thomas Trotter, organ/Anna-Kristiina Kaappola, soprano)

DECCA 466 329 (3 CDs) (F) (DDD)  TT:  72:26 / 52:03 / 65:51


Finally the musical world has the opportunity to hear—more or less—Alexander Scriabin's magnum opus—Preparation for the Final Mystery, a work he began planning in 1903. At the time of his death in 1915 he had completed only 53 pages of musical sketches (not in any particular order) and about a thousand lines of text. Scriabin had grandiose plans for this work. He would have built a great temple for the production of Mysterium (a.k.a. Preparation for The Final Mystery), a mixture of rite and drama to last for seven days and nights, and this would transform the human race. He told friends, "There will not be a single spectator. All will be participants. The work requires special people, special artists and a completely new culture. The cast of performers includes an orchestra, a large mixed choir, an instrument with visual effects, dancers, a procession, incense, and rhythmic textural articulation. The cathedral in which it will take place will not be of one single type of stone but will continually change with the atmosphere and motion of the Mysterium.  This will be done with the aid of mists and lights, which will modify the architectural contours."  Later he added that after the grand performance the world would come to an end with the human race replaced by "nobler beings."

As Scriabin didn't complete his final "masterpiece," Russian composer Alexander Nemtin (1936 - 1999) attempted to do so, spending  almost three decades on the effort. Apparently he composed his own music as well including two symphonies, an orchestral suite, sonatas, piano pieces and music for children, but the current Schwann/Opus lists no recordings. As he had so little to work with, he drew upon other works of Scriabin, mostly  piano pieces, to fill out the concept—but we surely may assume that the work basically is Nemtin's, not Scriabin's.  Knowledgeable liner notes for this CD set, written by Berlioz and Scriabin authority Hugh Macdonald, state, "We therefore owe Alexander Nemtin a great deal of gratitude for bringing these tenuous sketches to life and for re-creating a truly Scriabinesque experience."  Additional notes by Julia Makarova, who was Nemtin's wife, and by Konstantin Portugalov, shed more light on Nemtin's work on completing Mysterium.

The first part of the trilogy, Universe, was completed in 1972, premiered the following year in Moscow with Kiril Kondrashin conducting and recorded for Melodiya for a long out-of-print LP. The second part, Mankind, was composed from 1976-1980, the third part, Transfiguration, was finished in 1996. There have been several performances of the entire work, notably in San Francisco with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting, and the Berlin production with Vladimir Ashkenazy on the podium, the latter now issued via this 3-CD set.

The three parts of Mysterium are described in a general way in the CD booklet (Con delicatezza, Vivo, Sauvage, Molto vivace, Douloureux, dÈchirant, charmÈ, Flamboyant, et. al.); unfortunately the 25 tracks are not related in any way to the descriptions so it is virtually impossible to tell just what is supposed to be taking place. There are many shimmering redundant wisps of sound, fragmented themes weaving throughout the often heavy orchestral textures, a wordless chorus that wails much of the time (sometimes with a solo soprano piercing through). There seems to be little in the way of formal thematic development; climaxes seem to just happen and they are not as cataclysmic or effective as those found in the best of  Scriabin's completed orchestral works.

How does it hold up?  Not very well. There is little focus and repetition is the norm. To me there is no question that the finest part of Mysterium is the first part, Universe, in which presumably most of Scriabin's sketches were used.  Parts of the final two sections are reminiscent of John Williams' score for Close Encounters (written in 1976/77).  Indeed much of Mysterium  would be highly effective for an outer-space movie score.

Although quite disappointing, I'm glad that it was recorded. It is unlikely it will be recorded again. Vladimir Ashkenazy has been an advocate of Scriabin's music for his entire career recording much of the piano music as well as major orchestral works. The Berlin orchestra is excellent and Decca's sonics are up to their usual standards although the organ, which plays a very prominent part, often seems overly loud.

The set is filled out with a 32-minute ballet called Nuances which is an orchestration of 14 of Scriabin's piano works created by Faubion Bowers, American author of a book on Scriabin. In 1975 he commissioned Nemtin to write an orchestral suite based on Scriabin's late piano works. The result went unnoticed until 1996 when Ashkenazy made the present recording.  There is no plot to the ballet, although an imaginative possible program for the ballet is included in the notes. One can't help but wonder why Scriabin's piano piece Nuances, Op. 56 No. 3 isn't included in the "ballet" with that name.

R.E.B. (Oct. 2000)