Notes and Editorial Reviews
Complete Piano Sonatas
Dmitri Alexeev (pn)
BRILLIANT 94388 (2 CDs: 143:53)
For many of us who grew up in the 1960s and ’70s, the earliest pioneers of new/old repertoire always seem to be the definitive interpreters. Are there any of us, for instance, who do not like at least some of Leonard Bernstein’s Mahler recordings? Do we not feel that, no matter how good Marc-André Hamelin is at playing Alkan (and he is), no one can touch Raymond Lewenthal for his rare combination of great technique
and interpretive fire? Sometimes the pioneers of a new genre, regardless of the era in which they appeared, really
the best. I’ve had occasion, recently, to download and listen to soprano Radiana Pazmor’s groundbreaking 1934 recording of Charles Ives’s song, “General William Booth Enters Into Heaven,” and I’m here to tell you that although the song had to be slightly abridged to fit on one side of a 78-rpm record, no one sings it better. Her combination of a truly luscious voice, impeccable technique, clear diction, and great interpretive skills are as impressive now as they were then.
The same feeling, for me at least, extends to Ruth Laredo’s magical recordings of Scriabin’s complete piano sonatas. Originally issued on the now-defunct Connoisseur label, they were so highly prized by critics and collectors that the masters were bought by Nonesuch who did the world a favor and reissued them. To the best of my recollection, they have never been out of print since, and rightly so. Laredo’s passion, detail, astonishing command of nuance at the softest dynamic levels, and deep-in-the-keys sound make these old analog recordings soar with unbelievable majesty and intensity (although even this can be subjective—two reviewers on Amazon found her readings prosaic or boring). Some things are just so good that newcomers and competitors always seem to fall flat.
Thus you can understand that I always preface any new recording of Scriabin piano sonatas by playing Laredo first, just to remind myself of all the little details she got out of them in addition to her overall sense of structure. And this time, just to be fair, I started my listening with the last five sonatas, which are among the most advanced and celebrated of Scriabin’s compositions.
One thing that struck me immediately was the more intimate sound of Dmitri Alexeev’s soft passages compared to Laredo’s. Although his playing does not lack excitement or drama, he seems to have taken his cue more from the descriptions of Scriabin’s own playing, which did not rely on power because of his slight build. Rather, he “captivated the listener through his ability to enhance his sound with an extraordinary range and gradation of color…his fingers seemingly plucked the sound from the piano keys…as if his hands flew over the keyboard barely touching it.” This exact same description can also be applied to Debussy’s playing as heard on his studio recordings and Welte piano rolls; but, of course, there are, and have been, many different and excellent interpreters of Debussy whose playing did not entirely mirror the composer’s, and such is the case here with Scriabin.
Alexeev’s instrument also has a much warmer sound than Laredo’s, or at least the microphones used captured a warmer sound. Another interesting thing: Somehow or other, Alexeev manages to sidestep the slightly creepy feeling one gets from listening to Laredo’s Scriabin. Even though he is playing the exact same notes, with almost the exact same dynamic stresses and phrasing, Alexeev’s final result is often more lyrical and less aggressive sounding. Is this a good thing or a bad one? You’ll have to make that determination yourself. In some moments I found Laredo superior, in others Alexeev. In certain passages, particularly the very dramatic interludes and connecting phrases, I found them equal. And no question about it, the recorded sound is much warmer in the new recording.
The question you must ask yourself, then, is: Do I like hearing Scriabin’s sonatas played with more warmth and less edginess? It’s an interesting question, and not altogether a moot point. Artur Schnabel, Annie Fischer, and Craig Sheppard all played the Beethoven sonatas in a much edgier fashion than did Backhaus or O’Conor, and yet there are certain sonatas from the Backhaus and O’Conor sets that I prefer to Schnabel, Fischer, or Sheppard. I also admit that in certain places, for instance the opening four minutes of Sonata No. 6, Alexeev’s almost magically soft touch comes closer to the descriptions in the booklet of Scriabin’s own playing. It might also be mentioned that Alexeev’s performances are all, with only two exceptions, longer than Laredo’s to a lesser or greater degree. Here’s the comparison:
Sonata No. 1 20:46 26:22
Sonata No. 2 10:53 11:58
Sonata No. 3 19:06 19:54
Sonata No. 4 8:59 7:57
Sonata No. 5 10:39 13:13
Sonata No. 6 12:48 13:45
Sonata No. 7 11:28 12:48
Sonata No. 8 14:42 15:11
Sonata No. 9 7:19 9:38
Sonata No. 10 13:26 13:07
As you can see, these differences are not all insignificant. They represent a much broader view of the music, which in turn has a very different emotional effect on the listener. Is Alexeev’s approach wholly appropriate to Scriabin’s unique sound world? Possibly. And that very possibility makes this set a valid alternative to the Laredo set. Moreover, although she was a pioneer in this music and an outstanding technician, Laredo did make a few technical errors in her performances. Sonata No. 8, in particular, suffers from her somewhat clumsy execution of the very difficult double roulades, which Alexeev (and also Hamelin) play correctly. Yet her mood and feeling in the later sonatas, particularly Nos. 7 and 9, are quite extraordinary whereas Alexeev is merely good. Since I’ve mentioned Hamelin, I should point out that his set of the Scriabin sonatas, though impassioned and dramatic, sometimes lacks the sensitivity of touch that Laredo and Alexeev bring to them.
I should also mention that Laredo’s quicker tempos allowed her to include a number of other pieces by Scriabin not on Alexeev’s set: the Etude, op. 2/1, the Eight Etudes, op. 42, and the highly descriptive short pieces
Désir, Caresse dansée,
Vers la flamme.
By and large, however, if you do not already own the Laredo set, Alexeev will probably satisfy your Scriabin cravings, particularly since it sells for about $10.98 whereas the Laredo set goes for almost $20.
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
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