Following the pianistic progress of the Russian pianist-composer Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915) is one fascinating journey into the heart of darkness, just to borrow the title of Joseph Conrads novella. I love the quote, Once I was a Chopinian, later I became a Wagnerian, but now I am a Scriabinian. which succinctly sums up the composers ascent (or descent?) from apparent guilelessness to all-consuming megalomania, and eventual musical and spiritual immolation.
Elena Kuschnerovas very substantial recital disc focuses on Scriabins early Chopin phase, which already displays the restless, agitated and almost breathless endeavour to break free from artistic and pianistic shackles of the nineteenth century. Her legendary Russian compatriots Horowitz and Richter have recorded some of the tudes, Prludes and Pomes – albeit frustratingly in bits and pieces – but one has to turn to Kushnerova to hear pianism of that calibre in complete sets.
One senses the Russian soul coursing deep in her veins the moment she plays the poignant opening of the simple tude in C sharp minor, Op.2 No.1. Its not the notes, but how she phrases them; it is this very spirit that eludes many a technically proficient young pianist we so often hear today. The twelve tudes of Op.8 follow like a breeze. In her hands, these finger-twisters do not sound like studies but miniature tone paintings. Hers is without mannerism, nor the inimitable and often endearing quirks of Horowitz (who could ever embody the spirit of a capriccio in the F sharp minor etude?), but yet revealing enough of her personality. Seldom has the lyricism of No.8, or the brooding melancholy of No.11 come through with such poignancy. For virtuosity of touch and quixotic shifts of mood, the breathless Alla ballata No.9 comes to represent all that is quintessential Scriabin. I could go on, but it would be best to allow these revelatory performances to do their own commentary.
Scriabins Prludes Op.11 is the only set of his that traverses all 24 major and minor keys like Chopins Op.28. Complete recordings have become more commonplace but it is the incomplete selections by Andrei Gavrilov (on EMI Classics) from the 1980s that continues to stir my imagination. Kuschnerovas take is kaleidoscopic as a whole, performed with a sweep like reading a good novel that is hard to put down. In the individual movements, she elicits a wide range of moods, from pensiveness, beguiling disquiet to ecstatic outbursts, ever shifting within a matter of seconds. A musical roller-coaster ride that entices, thrills and sends shivers down the spine. This is without doubt a disc that I am very happy to have beside my volumes of Horowitz, Sofronitzky, and Gavrilov.
Kuschnerovas Prokofiev disc is less generous, but still musically satisfying. I remember a now- deleted Lazar Berman disc of the same major works (on Deutsche Grammophon), and this is at least its equal. Prokofiev transcribed ten pieces from his ballet Romeo and Juliet for the piano. While these cannot match the orchestra for sheer colour and opulence, the substantial musical material shines through especially in the hands of a sympathetic interpreter. Kuschnerova never loses the fact that these are dance numbers and she provides the necessary rhythmic thrust that keeps the music going. Her musical storytelling comes across strongly; winsome in The Young Juliet, boisterous in Mercutio, reassuringly warm in Brother Laurence and climactic in Romeo and Juliet before Parting.
The early four-movement Second Sonata of Prokofiev has become regular piano competition fodder for nimble-fingered candidates, the perfect vehicle for blinding and faceless virtuosity. That ignores the fact that it contains genuinely good music with much scope for a show of superior musicianship. Kuschnerovas performance is altogether musical, one that mixes the lyrical, dramatic and the motoric elements in the right degree such that no aspect of the composers pianism is found wanting. To my ears, this comes close to an ideal reading even displacing Richters attempts by virtue of the recordings crystal clear sound. One only wished Kuschnerova added another Prokofiev sonata; for me that would have been the other Richter speciality, the Fourth Sonata.
Elena Kuschnerova, a former student of Tatyana Kestner (who taught Gavrilov) and Sergei Dorensky, may be what’s left of the genuine and hallowed Russian piano school. Now that many of her younger compatriots have sought training in the greener pastures of the West (thus leading to a gradually increasing homogeneity of performances), pianism like hers is becoming a rare commodity. Recordings like these should be snapped up in haste!
Tou Liang disagrees with a certain writer that playing Scriabins tude in D sharp minor makes one albeit for a moment – feel like a god. Its much more than that it makes one feel like Horowitz!