06 ScriabinScriabin – Poem of Ecstasy; Symphony No.2
Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra; JoAnn Falletta
Naxos 8.574039 (bpo.org/recordings) 

Will the compositional dust ever settle on the early 20th century? Let’s hope not. What a fascinating, tempestuous time it was, what madness emerged from the studied rebellion of the Romantic period! Who knew that Liszt, of all people, would be a kind of heroic model to Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915), who tore up the book of common practice harmony and looked for colours that some would call garish, and others revelatory.

And the composers themselves, calling one another names or championing themselves and their cadre. (Okay, that sounds contemporary.) According to the liner notes on this beautiful rendering of his Poem of Ecstasy (1905-08) and Second Symphony (1901), Scriabin referred to Igor Stravinsky (ten years his junior) as “a mass of insolence and a minimum of creative power.” Dude, sour grapes? Stravinsky was calculating, but he also wrote The Firebird and The Rite of Spring.

Scriabin’s art has factions pro and con, and he probably had as much influence as Ravel did on insolent Igor. For my part, hearing the colours and wandering sensuality of phrase and gesture of the Poem, I’m back in the ballet pit, back in the 1900’s, grumpily wishing I were playing Afternoon of a Faun instead, because who is this upstart with the idea that sexual release and musical climax should be enjoyed simultaneously? At least Claude merely sought to depict it, not to have his listeners engage in it. (There is nobody more conservative than a ballet pit musician…)  

Scriabin’s tonal voice was amazing, his artistic trajectory heading into the ever-weirder, his fame unquestioned; and then he died in his 40s. Just a terribly sad fate. 

The playing is more than equal to the demands of the score, the direction sure and provocative, as the score also demands. JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic have every right to be proud. If the second symphony makes you think of César Franck, well, yes. But EVER so much better.

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