SCRIABIN / JANACEK - Sonatas and Poems

SCRIABIN / JANACEK - Sonatas and Poems - Stephen Hough (Piano) - 034571178950 - Released: November 2015 - Hyperion CDA67895

1} Piano Sonata No. 5, Op. 53 (Scriabin)
2} On the overgrown path, Book 1 (Janácek)
3} Počme in F sharp major, Op. 32 (Scriabin)
4} Vers la flamme, Op. 72 (Scriabin)
5} Piano Sonata '1.X.1905, From the street' (Janácek)
6} Piano Sonata No. 4 in F sharp major, Op. 30 (Scriabin)

Whenever I listen to, play, or ponder the piano music of Alexander Scriabin, my initial perception is always of something larger than life, dark, deeply profound, harmonically complex and opaque, mystical, and on a cosmic scale. And whenever I listen to recordings, of any composer, by pianist Stephen Hough, I always hear clarity, effervescent speed, delicacy and a bright and sunny perspective. Therefore I was somewhat doubtful that this new Hyperion recording featuring some of Scriabin's best output would even get off the ground. Well, not only does it get off the ground, it even soars. In Stephen Hough's hands, the other persona of Scriabin's music shines through. It becomes mercurial, transparent, nervous, on edge and luminous, like shafts of shimmering light piercing through the tenebrous darkness. Hough has managed to shift my perception of Scriabin.

And of course the pieces featured on this disc play up the concepts of spirit, light, quicksilver transformation, etc ... For example, the single movement Piano Sonata No. 5 opens violently with a dissonant upward-rushing gesture, as if a malevolent spirit suddenly appearing out of nowhere. It (the spirit) then proceeds at breakneck velocity to perform a series of malicious deeds without being seen, and before getting caught, vanishes just as quickly and violently with the same dissonant upward-rushing gesture. And of course this is all achieved within Scriabin's infallible harmonic genius. Hough's playing here is remarkably forceful and spirited, and definitely captures the underlying energy that drives the music forward. At the other end of the scale sits the Počme in F sharp major. Perfumed, sensual ear-candy, delicate. And Hough plays with such delicacy and finesse here you would believe some notes are fragile enough to break. Scriabin himself expressed about the Piano Sonata No. 4: "It must fly at the speed of light right at the sun, straight into the sun!" Stephen Hough certainly projects the sense of ecstatic speed found within and delivers a breathtaking ending.

Beside the fact that they lived during the same time period and were both highly individual and original composers in their own distinct way, I personally don't see any musical connection whatsoever between Alexander Scriabin and Leos Janácek. For example, most of Scriabin's output was for solo piano whereas Janácek's wasn't. You can immediately feel that the piano was a natural extension of Scriabin. Janácek wrote some pieces for the instrument, but that's as far as the interaction went. On the overgrown path, as original and inventive as it is, lies to close to the sound world of Schumann. And Schumann and Scriabin could not be farther from each other in terms of philosophical outlook and creative output. But in the booklet notes Stephen Hough himself explains why he decided to bring them together with: "I love the contrast between their styles and I find that playing these pieces next to each other highlights the beauty of each - uninterrupted Scriabin can become cloying, too much Janácek can become exhausting - but alternating them creates a wonderful patchwork, their contrasting voices so different but equally compelling, equally intense."

An exceptional recording. I never suspected that my lifelong perception and understanding of the music of Alexander Scriabin could be altered so easily. Well done!

Jean-Yves Duperron - December 2015