Scriabin's Poem of Ecstasy, Op. 54

Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915) must have seemed  strange to his contemporaries although today his eccentricities probably wouldn't seem too out-of-place. His fantasy world was extreme, his imagination vivid. Evolving from  the writings of Nietzsche, Prince Trubetskoy and Wagner, Scriabin's philosophy eventually developed  into his own mystical concept of life and art, known as Orphism, "the rites and religion ascribed to Orpheus as founder."  Orpheus was a poet-musician with "magic musical powers" who descended into the underworld in an  unsuccessful attempt  to bring back his wife Euyrdice.  Scriabin wanted to glorify  "Art  as a religion,  particularly in his symphonic works.  Scriabin attempted  to depict  the human soul  freeing  itself  from material bondage by ceaseless creative activity to reach what Scriabin called "divine play" as the soul reaches its fullest expression.  A fine pianist, Scriabin  gave many concerts often featuring his own works.  Although he composed primarily for the piano, he also was a master of orchestration.  

Scriabin considered himself to be a "Messiah," an  inspired bringer of enlightenment to humanity. His goal was to write a final symphonic work to be called "The Mystery," which would be a massive religious/artistic event combining all of the senses in a supreme and final ecstasy.   This grandiose work would  reflect the history of the universe, the human race and the human mind.  The  music's presentation  would be its  fulfillment, not its performance.  This "monster concert"  would  feature all of Scriabin's orchestral works (no music of other composers, of course!!)  performed  in chronological order with thousands of musicians  --  presumably color keyboards  as well,  to be performed  on the highest  peaks of the Himalayan mountains. (Don't even begin to think of  logistics of such an event!). After the performance the  human race would disappear, to be replaced by another group of beings  "higher and nobler."  Details of  how this would be accomplished  were  not  explained in the overall scheme of things.

Scriabin  expressed his  ideas initially in his Symphony No. 1 (1899-1900), scored for  tenor and soprano soloists and chorus;  Symphony No. 2 (1901),  and Symphony No. 3 (1902-4) subtitled "The Divine Poem." In 1905 Scriabin began to compose his Poem of Ecstasy,  which he elected to call his  Symphony No. 4 even though it is stretching the definition of  the form to the extreme to label a work such as this  a  "symphony."  Scriabin seldom gave a concise programmatic description of his music,  but he did write in rather vague terms about Poem. Scriabin  described  three sections:  (l) his soul in the orgy of love, (2) the realization of a fantastic dream, and (3) the glory of his own art.  He also wrote a long poem to accompany the music although not to be heard over it.  The poem ends with, "I am a moment illuminating eternity....I am affirmation...I am ecstasy."   In his biography of Scriabin, A. Eaglefield Hull describes   Poem of Ecstasy  as follows:  in the first section, we find "human striving after the ideal" with "the Ego theme gradually realizing itself.  The principal theme of the main section is associated with "the soaring flight of the spirit," the second theme, for solo violin, with "human love," and the third, for solo trumpet, with "the will to rise up."  Varied emotions are expressed in the music:  tragedy, stress, defiance, charm, pleasure and ecstasy.  Towards the end, the trumpet becomes  bolder and  more majestic, abetted by other brass.  The Epilogue is of  immense power and triumphant grandeur, with tolling orchestral bells and heavy organ underpinning.  To guide conductors, the score has such designations as molto languido ("as languid as possible"), très parfumé ("very perfumed"), avec une noble et joyeuse émotion ("with a lofty and joyous emotion"),  avec une volupté de plus en plus extatique ("with a sensual pleasure even more rapturous" ), and  charmé ( "beguiled") -- plus more common indications including  "dramatic," "languishing," "tragic," "delirium" and "majestic."  

After Poem, Scriabin wrote Prometheus ("The Poem of Fire"), which he considered to be his Symphony No. 5  although it  is  no more a symphony  than its predecessor.  Written in 1910, it was the composer's last completed orchestral work, almost a piano concerto with its prominent part for that instrument, although the pianist functions as part of the orchestra rather than as a soloist.  Perhaps this is the ultimate in Scriabin's attempt to link the actual and the supernatural.  In an attempt to achieve this, a chorus vocalizes  on specific vowels with an occasional aspirate, and  an optional color keyboard controls  colored lights to be displayed throughout the auditorium, an effect  written into the score but seldom  used in performance.

In 1913, just two years before his death, Scriabin started  work on  what he  intended  to be his final crowning masterpiece  --  "The Mystery"  -- the first part of which was to be called "Prefatory Act," but he left only  53 pages of sketches for his magnum opus, plus two versions of an incomplete poetic text.  Russian composer Alexander Nemtin (1936 - 1999) had enormous empathy with Scriabin's music and completed "Prefatory Act"  using Scriabin's sketches as well as  some of  his  piano preludes and  Sonata No. 8, scoring the work, in line with  Scriabin's intentions  for full orchestra, mixed choir, piano, organ and color keyboard. "Prefatory Act" is prefaced by an epigraph from the first version of Scriabin's text:

        The ardor of instance gives birth to eternity,
                Space lightens the depths
                Infinity breathes words.
                Peals have enveloped the silence.

The work was dedicated to Kiril Kondrashin who conducted the premiere and  made a  recording at the same time, once available on an Angel/Melodiya LP.  There is a live recording made April 3, 1995 with the Russian State Orchestra and Ostankino Radio Chorus directed by Igor Golovchin (Triton 17 001), and Decca has just issued a new recording with Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Berlin Radio Symphony. (289 466).

 Poem is our primary discourse here; Scriabin began work on Poem in 1905 and by May of 1907 supposedly had completed  the work although he continued to make changes in orchestration.  The premiere, scheduled for Feb. 16, 1908 in St. Petersburg, had to be postponed as the score wasn't ready. The world  premiere took place in New york December 10, 1908 conducted by Modeste Altschuler, a friend of the composer, who conducted all  of the American premieres of Scriabin's orchestral works. The Russian premiere  in St. Petersburg in January of 1909  received  mixed reviews although it still won second prize in the annual competition in honor of Mikhail Glinka.  (First prize was awarded to Rachmaninoff's then new Symphony No. 2.  Perhaps it should be mentioned that this prize was funded by M. P. Belaieff, a wealthy timber merchant and music publisher, a close friend of Scriabin's whose financial help throughout the composer's life permitted him to devote himself to composing and performing.)  Poem of Ecstasy is scored for a very large orchestra including 8 horns, 5 trumpets, 3 trombones and tuba, tam-tam, celesta, bells, two harps, full woodwinds, full strings and organ although the composer indicated that if an organ was not available a harmonium could be used. Surely the massive sound  of an organ is preferable.


There have been many recordings of Poem of Ecstasy.  The first was Leopold Stokowski's pioneering 78 rm set of  March 15, 1932 with a reduced Philadelphia Orchestra, available in a fine transfer by  Ward Marston  on Pearl ( GEMM 9066, PT: 17:13). 


Leopold Stokowski performed Poem of Ecstasy often and, in addition to his early Victor recording in Philadelphia, recorded it in 1959 with the Houston Symphony (Everest EVC 9037, PT:  19:14). 


There are three live performances, one from  June 18, 1968 with the New Philharmonia Orchestra now available on BBC Legends (BBCL 4018, PT:  19:22 -- see review).   Another performance  a year later (June 15 1969)  is also from the BBC, with the Royal Philharmonic issued on Music & Arts (M&A CD 847, PT: 18:04).  This same performance also has been issued in the BBC Legends series transferred from the master tapes (BBCL 4069) (see review).


 The third is a live performance with the Czech Philharmonic recorded in June 1972 issued in London's Phase Four series (443 898, PT: 19:05).  The Czech Philharmonic version is atypical of London's Phase Four series; the important trombone interjections are virtually inaudible although  organ sound is impressive.  Supposedly recorded live, it is apparent this is put together from rehearsals as well as the concert performance.  


One of the most exciting performances is by Nikolay Golovanov with the "Great Symphony Orchestra of the All-Union Radio and Central TV" made in 1952 and now issued on the Boheme label (CDBMR  907083, coupled with Divine Poem).  Golovanov's performance is magnificent and comes over in spite of the rather harsh mono sound.  In 1947  Pierre Monteux recorded Poem  with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra; in 1952, just pre-stereo, he recorded it  with the Boston Symphony, a performance included in RCA's 15-CD Monteux tribute (61890, PT: 19:21).   Inexplicably this was recorded in Carnegie Hall rather than Boston's Symphony Hall.  This performance has the advantage of Roger Voisin's  brilliant trumpet solos but is surprisingly sedate for a conductor of Monteux' temperament..  Another performance was recorded in 1952,  with the Paris Philharmonic Orchestra directed by Manuel Rosenthal, reissued on EMI Classics (66887, TT: 18:54 - already out-of-print).  It is an excellent  performance with remarkably good monophonic sound; the typical French/Russian brass sound is highly appropriate for this score.  


The Boston Symphony recording that should have remained in the catalog is Claudio Abbado's  1971 version (DG 415 370, TT: 19:29), which finds the conductor more emotionally involved  than  usual.  Stereo sound is exceptionally good,  presumably Voisin is the superb trumpet soloist (although not credited),  and the organ in Symphony Hall provides the rich low bass sound in the final climax that doubtless was Scriabin's  intent.  Reissue of this DG recording seems rather unlikely as the label has two new recordings, one recorded in 1995  with Pierre Boulez and the Chicago Symphony (DG 459 647, TT: 21:59), the other with Pletnev and the Russian National Orchestra recorded in 1996 (DG 459 681, TT: 19:30).  

Boulez offers  a chaste, sedate view of Poem; no passion here.  Adolph Herseth, principal trumpet of the CSO, is magnificent, but the conductor's  overall approach is analytical to the extreme and he is timid where he should be passionate.  Engineering doesn't help; this was recorded in Medinah Temple, usually a problem for any engineering team.  The sound is clear but rather bland. (DG 459 647) 


 DG is infinitely more successful in every way  in their new recording with Mikhail Pletnev and the Russian National Orchestra.  Pletnev is an enigma to me; his Tchaikovsky Pathétique on Virgin Classics was superb but the promise was not carried out in his later complete DGG  set of all of the Tchaikovsky symphonies with the same orchestra. However, he is perfectly in tune with the  eroticism of  Poem.  Strong accents and passionate dynamic accelerations occur often,  the orchestra is first-rate, outstanding sonics, too. (DG 459 681) 


A  DGG recording by Giuseppe Sinopoli's with the New York Philharmonic (coupled with Symphony No. 1)(427 324) has been discontinued.  Sinopoli is at his best in the luxurious textures of Scriabin's score and the recording is appropriately rich with Philip Smith's brilliant trumpet solos prominent.  Andreas Juffinger is credited as organist although his contribution -- obviously dubbed in -- doesn't lend the rock-solid foundation the final pages demand. 

Riccardo Muti recorded  all five Scriabin symphonies with the Philadelphia Orchestra  from 1985/90 for EMI issued in a 3-CD set (54251, PT: 20:02).  Poem was recorded at the end of the series; how  unfortunate that EMI always was so unsuccessful in capturing the sound of this orchestra.  Recorded in Memorial Hall in Philadelphia's Fairmount Park, the sound lacks richness and definition.  I recall a broadcast many years ago of one of the Scriabin symphonies when the PO was on tour; even on a radio broadcast it sounded  better than these studio recordings.  Muti's concept  of Scriabin and the superb  orchestral playing deserve better sonics than  those provided by EMI.

Neeme Järvi's Chandos version with the Chicago Symphony was recorded in Orchestra Hall.  Jarvi is made to order for music such as this (too bad he didn't record Gliere's Ilya Murometz in Chicago as once planned); Chandos' engineers did what they could in this problematic hall.  Bright sound  accentuates upper percussion, the predictable Herseth trumpet brilliance is always apparent, but the sound lacks weight.  Järvi's interpretation is imaginative, with an appropriate  long pause before the final pages.  How unfortunate sound isn't of the quality of the late '50s/early '60s Reiner recordings in the same venue!  Järvi's recording is in a Chandos twin-CD set that also contains Symphonies 2 and 3, and Rêverie (241-5, PT: 19:43). 


A magnificent performance recorded at a concert April 14, 1990 features the USSR  Symphony Orchestra directed by Evgeny Svetlanov (Russian Disc CD 11 056,  PT:  22:05), coupled with the First Symphony).  Wild and wooly, either the conductor or the engineers emphasize the distinctive sound of  Russian brass, and this is the longest recording ever made of the piece.  Unfortunately the sound is somewhat distorted in climaxes, but this is a grand-scale interpretation.  Svetlanov made a Melodiya recording of this with the same orchestra once issued on  an Angel  LP; I don't know if that is the same one record live at the Moscow Conservatory in February 1977 issued briefly in 1999 on BMG/RCA's Melodiya series in a 2-CD set that contained Poem, the Piano Concerto (with Alexei Nasedkin) and Symphonies 2 and 3 (BMG 66980 - n.l.a.). No question, this is one of the best Poems ever, if you can find it.  Another live Russian recording is  by  Evgeni Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic recorded in April of 1959, released on a now deleted Russian Disc (CD 10 900, PT:  20:24).  Surely one of the top recordings of the work, but plagued in the first minute by audience sounds - there must have been an incredible flu epidemic that season in Moscow.  If you can find a copy,  it is well worth owning.  The couplings are Liadov's Baba Yaga and Prokofiev's Symphony No. 6, both recorded at the same concert.

Lorin Maazel's  1978 Cleveland Orchestra recording is among the best, with a sense of urgency, stunning trumpet solos, impressive tam-tams, and a fine organ during the final pages. This is part of a fine Scriabin CD that also contains Prometheus and the Piano Concerto with Vladimir Ashkenazy as soloist  in both (London 417 252, PT:  18:33).   Eliahu Inbal's recording  on Philips  with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra (Philips 454 271, PT: 18:21) underplays  important  trumpet and trombone statements, although the overall warm sonic picture is to the score's advantage.  There is a live performance recorded in 1983 with the USSR TV and Radio Large Symphony Orchestra directed by Vladimir Fedoseyev  (Audiophile Classics APL 101.517, PT:  15:36).  This is the fastest of all, rather exciting in its own way, but missing grandeur of the score.   There was an early stereo recording on LP with Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic on London that, if memory serves, was very fine -- but this has long since disappeared and never was issued on CD.

A recent Philips recording with Valery Gergiev and the Kirov Orchestra (coupled with The Rite of Spring) (468 035) adds little to the extase catalog.  Brass is understated and Gergiev puts in unnecessary pauses where they aren't written or needed omitting the one just before the final pages where it is. (See REVIEW)

WHICH ONE TO OWN?  The ideal performance - with sonic quality to match - is yet to come.  For me the closest to perfection is either Golonov's or Svetlanov's, but the distorted sonic quality of the former is disturbing, and Svetlanov's 1977 recording is hard to find.  Stokowski's 1968 New Philharmonia version is surely among the select group, as is his 1969 recording with the Royal Phil.  Pletnev's DG recording is brilliant in conception and execution.  Last year's Live! at the Concertgebouw series included a performance by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Peter Eotvos that was quite extraordinary -- but this is not a commercial recording.  I look forward to a recorded performance that would offer massive bells and organ in the final pages. It hasn't appeared yet.