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30 Oct 2009

Julius Isserlis plays... Scriabin. 24 Preludes - Delta 1963

Alexander Scriabin:
Twenty-Four Preludes, op.11.
Nos. 1 - 6     (C Major ~ A Minor ~ G Major ~ E Minor ~ D Major ~ D Minor) 
Nos. 7 - 12     (A Major ~ F Sharp Minor ~ E Major ~ C Sharp Minor ~  B Major ~ G Sharp Minor)
Nos. 13 - 18    (G Flat Major ~ E Flat Minor ~ D Flat Major ~ B Flat Minor ~ A Flat Major ~ F Minor)
Nos. 19 - 24    (E Flat Major ~ C minor ~ B Flat Major ~ G Minor ~ F Major ~ D Minor)
Julius Isserlis,  piano                        FLAC  Mega Download
Delta  DEL 12022   Mono only release.  Philips UK mastered/pressed. Matrices: 1143 A -1 / 1143 B -1 
Re-edited  July 2010 / December 2012  
Sleeve-note  /  LP label  / 1932 Vienna Concert programme >>>

An elderly pianist with a 'flawed' technique (in, apparently, his only commercial recording - presumably recorded c.1962).  By the time this was recorded his phrasing in louder-passages was of the 'heavy-weather' variety; however there might be some interest in hearing a no-longer 'accomplished' (and 'obscure', Russian) pianist - as the 'great beauty' mentioned in the review, below, is quite evident throughout many of these Preludes.  "EMG Monthly Letter" (October 1963) commented:- "Isserlis obviously has a great affection for these miniatures...and it is to be regretted that his playing leaves something to be desired. Moments of great beauty are followed by the most ungainly, lumpish playing". Upon its release "The Times" described the playing on this LP as 'fumbling', and there's a very irate letter in "Gramophone" in 1965.
Technically, the LP produces a surprisingly excellent 'natural' sound: more piano - less 'acoustic' 

Alexander Scriabin was a Christmas child, having been born on 25th December 1871 (Russian Old Style, January 6th 1872, Western style). He always attached a quasimystical importance to that birthday, and certain it is that he was gifted not only with the luck to have talent, but also, and until his untimely death in 1915, with the talent to have luck.

To start with, he had been lucky in the choice of his parents: his mother was an excellent concert pianist, one of the best pupils of Leschetitzky at the Petersburg Conservatoire, the special pet of Anton and Nicholas Rubinstein, and a dazzler whose talent and charm were duly inherited by her son. Though he died within a year of giving him birth, he was brought up adoringly by his aunt and grandmother, who helped to develop his precocious musicianship, but brought him up 'in cotton-wool', giving in readily to all his whims. He began to play the piano long before he could read - either notes or the alphabet, and loved to improvise, which he did quite proficiently from the age of five. He came from a military family, and at his own wish joined the Cadet Corps in Moscow. Though frail, he was a good all-round pupil, and quite popular with his comrades, whom he liked to entertain at the piano.

He then entered the Moscow Conservatoire, where he pursued his studies under N. S. Zveref and S. 1. Taneief, later with V. I. Safonof, who were not only first-class teachers, but also influential musicians who helped to foster his career. Perhaps characteristically, he did not get on well with A.S. Arensky, a strict di:ciplinarian, under whom he studied fugue. One of his classmates was Sergei Rachmaninof, who became his best friend and keenest rival. In 1891, he won the gold medal for piano playing.

Before then, however, he had started composing and had attracted the attention of the rich publisher Belaief, who became his generous patron, impresario and sponsor, and thanks to whom he was largely relieved of money worries. Scriabin had a gift for appealing to munificent supporters, and another wealthy admirer, M. K. Morosova was later to grant him a comfortable annuity of 2,400 roubles.

In 1896, he married a fellow student, Vera Ivanovna, who was a talented pianist, and with whom he toured Europe in concerts of his own work, financed by Belaief. For five years, he taught at the Moscow Conservatory, did not like it, and went to live in Switzerland, at Vesenaz near Geneva, to work on his composition. There he was visited by a young woman admirer, Tatiana Schloezer, who joined the household in what was apparently an amicable "menage-a-trois"  that, however, caused a good deal of scandal at the time - and even more when, after carefully coaching Vera in the interpretation of his works, he left her to go and live in Paris with Tatiana. The scandal spoiled an initially very successful American tour, but it did not prevent him from finding yet another useful backer in the person of Serge Koussevitzky, who, after the death of Belaief, became his publisher and contracted to give him a substantial yearly retainer for his works, while also conducting his symphonic compositions.

From early youth, Scriabin had been attracted to a somewhat vague mysticism. and was deeply influenced, first by the ideas of Niet-che, later by those of the theosophical circles he joined in Brussels. He had high-flown ambitions to blend music and philosophy as well as to explore unheard of realms of harmony. He thus evolved what he called his 'mystic chord', consisting of six fourths: C, F sharp, B flat, E, A and D, on which he based his tone-poem "Prometheus".

In this work, he also tried to establish the affinity between tone and colour, and asked that the hues corresponding to his themes be projected on a screen while it was performed. The results were far from convincing, and the work, when performed in London under Sir Henry Wood in 1914 (twice in the same concert) was unaccompanied by the required "clavier a lumiere".

Scriabin continued to tour the world as a pianist until the outbreak of the 1914-1918 war, then gave a series of concerts in Russia. His death came suddenly and painfully on April 27th, 1915, following a carbuncle on the lip that led to blood poisoning

In person, he was small and slight of stature, pale of face. with a wild shock of hair, a large military moustache and a little pointed beard. He was always exquisitely turned out. and his critics denounced him as a coxcomb.

*************

His large-scale orchestral works - beside "Prometheus'', three symphonies and the once popular 'Poeme de l'extasee' - are now largely forgotten, but his smaller pieces for the keyboard are still part of the repertory of virtuoso pianists such as Julius Isserlis, who plays on the present record the 24 Preludes op. 11.

Written early in his career, under the obvious influence of Chopin and Schumann, they are arranged to pass through a circle of 24 keys, from C major through the sharp keys and back again through the flats. All are short, and they are uneven in quality, but at least ten of them are of exquisite beauty. No 1 is slight and all too brief. No 2 is a pensive duet between the two hands, with a particularly lovely figure for the right. No 3 is a Presto with a pleasing 'spinning wheel' melody. No 4 foreshadows the deep brooding of later compositions, and speaks of perplexity and uneasy expectancy. No 5 has greater confidence and ends in serene tranquillity. No 6, impetuous and dashing, recalls Schumann's "Novelette" in D, while No 8 recalls the influence of Chopin. No 9 opens with noble simplicity and sombre pomp. No 11 might seem to depict the composer's struggle for self-expression against the shadow of his great Polish predecessor No 12, with its curious  inconclusiveness, is all Scriabin. No 13 is a delightful miniature of calm reverie. The triumphant and masterful No 14 is somewhat reminiscent of Wagner's 'Ride of the Valkyries'. More questing, No 15 seems to ask the perennial questions: 'Where?', 'Why'?', 'Whither?'.

No 16, though marked 'Misterioso' (Scriabin was always fond of fancy markings) offers no great mystery, but an attractive, restrained sonority. No 17 is simple and not particularly distinguished. Though effectively pianistic, No 18 is not very significant either. No 19, on the other hand, is a noble number rich in rhythmic and harmonic material. So is No 20, which, starting in bustling mood, gradually recedes like a spent wave. No 21 has a melodious theme in the right hand, with arpeggio accompaniment in the left, expressing peace and sweet contentment. No 22 is likewise a beautiful little poem within the short space of 24 bars. No 23 has a graceful Chopinesque lilt. No 24, more extended than the others, surges along with tempestuous energy.

Altogether, in its wide variety of moods the work is a conspectus of the wealth of poetic feelings in the strange, striving, engaging creature who was Alexander Scriabin.

Rene Elvin