Scriabin: Symphony No. 1; The Poem of Ecstasy

Performed by Russian National Orchestra, conducted by Mikhail Pletnev.

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COMPOSERS: Scriabin
LABELS: PentaTone
ALBUM TITLE: Symphony No. 1; The Poem of Ecstasy
WORKS: Symphony No. 1; The Poem of Ecstasy
PERFORMER: Russian National Orchestra/Mikhail Pletnev
CATALOGUE NO: PTC 5186 514 (hybrid CD/SACD)

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Scriabin’s First Symphony is an odd transitional work. Written by a headstrong composer-pianist in his late twenties, relatively inexperienced in writing for full orchestra, it’s a hugely ambitious six-movement work involving vocal soloists and chorus as well as the lush colours of a late-Romantic orchestra. There are hints of Wagner – for instance, the opening movement recalls the dawn sequence of Gotterdämmerung – and elsewhere Grieg. A would-be grandiose statement about art and Scriabin’s own creative sensibility, much of the Symphony’s effect is undermined by an inept choral finale, whose apotheosis involves a quasi-Bach fugue (presumably a hangover from Scriabin’s studies with Taneyev) plus pompous imperial-style coda. Elsewhere, though, there is a good deal which is captivating in Mikhail Pletnev’s excellent performance: in the thistledown Scherzo, the Russian National Orchestra demonstrates polished and tight ensemble playing for the lively main tempo, which Pletnev convincingly pulls back for the reflective solo clarinet episodes (just the type of tempo variation Scriabin used in his own piano roll accounts of his Preludes).

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Poem of Ecstasy is, by contrast, a landmark masterpiece – one without which Stravinsky’s Firebird would have been unthinkable. Pletnev’s relatively unhurried performance makes the two climaxes all the more powerful, Vladislav Lavrik’s trumpet adding a certain masochistic edge with its cries of ecstatic pain. However Pletnev’s slow tempo does rather dissipate any sense of ardent urgency, the sighing strings just before the final cadence sounding listless, rather than intensely yearning as played by the Cleveland Orchestra under Vladimir Ashkenazy on Decca. Daniel Jaffé