Friday, August 21, 2009

Alexander Scriabin - The Poem of Ecstasy, Piano Concerto in F# minor, Prometheus

One of many composers who blurred the line between genius and lunacy, Alexander Scriabin created some of the most ambitious, complex, and downright orgasmic music of his time or any. The pieces on this recording, especially the Poem of Ecstasy and Prometheus (also called the Poem of Fire), surge and seethe with emotions both primal and highly refined. Scriabin (1872 - 1915) was a piano virtuoso, maverick composer, synaesthete (his perceptions of sounds and colors were intrinsically linked), and mystic. To get an idea of how mystical Scriabin could be, take for example that for the last dozen years of his life he toiled on a massive, multi-media project to be performed in the Himalayas, which Scriabin hoped would usher in the armaggedon and replace mankind with "nobler beings". The work, called Mysterium, would have been "a grandiose religious synthesis of all arts which would herald the birth of a new world" - unfortunately, it was never completed.

While the pieces on this album aren't quite as ambitious as that, they are nonetheless tremendous musical achievements, so grandiose and sensational as to make Wagner's most dramatic pieces seem docile by comparison. Pierre Boulez brings the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to seismic levels of intensity as they explore Scriabin's bizarre universe of exotic and ecstatic harmonies. According to Wikipedia, the Poem of Ecstasy combines two aesthetic principles Scriabin upheld: that music is the most highly evolved of the human arts, and that ecstasy is the most highly evolved of the human emotions. Novelist Henry Miller evidently thought very highly of the piece, writing
"That Poème de l'extase? Put it on loud. His music sounds like I think - sometimes. Has that far-off cosmic itch. Divinely fouled up. All fire and air. The first time I heard it I played it over and over. (...) It was like a bath of ice, cocaine and rainbows. For weeks I went about in a trance. Something had happened to me."
The Poem of Fire, if anything, is an even greater musical spectacle, calling for an enormous orchestra and vocal chorus, as well as a one-of-a-kind instrument called the clavier à lumières, a kind of organ/light-projector that would bathe the concert hall in color and sound. The music is somewhat more difficult than in the Poem of Ecstasy, making heavy use of Scriabin's dissonant "Prometheus chord" consisting of the pitches C, F, B, E, A, and D in various inversions. The climax of the piece sounds like a choir of angels singing the world to its end.

Sandwiched between those cataclysmic symphonic works is Scriabin's piano concerto in F# minor, an earlier work that displays the composer's love of Chopin. This is the most accessible piece on the album, lush, tender, delicate, and emotionally satisfying. It could be classified as post-Romantic, being strongly lyrical and expressive while exploring richer harmonies and more daring dissonances than was typical of the Romantic style. The first few achingly lovely minutes of the Andante movement sound like the work of a completely different composer than the Poems. However, the same movement features some very dark and abstract passages, and in general this concerto hints at the extremes Scriabin would take his music to in the last 15 years of his life.

Wikipedia reports that Scriabin was a life-long hypochondriac, and in 1915 he passed away from sepsis contracted from a shaving cut or lip boil.