My favorite recordings of 'Poem of Ecstasy'
Hello and welcome to my first blog post. I've decided to start writing about my experiences as a young composer of color in the 21st century due to many interesting happenings in my compositional life. I will definitely have a lot to write about in the upcoming future due to my career getting busy and several big opportunities I am getting.
I'd like to start my blog off by reviewing several of my favorite recordings of Alexander Scriabin's orchestral work 'The Poem of Ecstasy', a work I've been studying lately.
A little background to the music
Also known as his Symphony No. 4, this work is scored for a huge orchestra plus organ. It was composed from 1905 to 1908. Before starting this piece, Scriabin wrote himself a long poem on the topic of the ecstasy and the universe. The resulting music wasn't intended to depict the poem word for word, but when it is read along with listening to the music they fit well together.
As far as what the music is about, various sources say that it depicts the passionate and complex world that is sex and physical pleasure, but Scriabin's letters concerning this piece basically tells you how much fun he had writing this thing.
"...I am swept up by an enormous wave of creativity. I gasp for breath, but oh, what bliss! I am creating divinely...the very meter kindles the meaning..." - Alexander Scriabin
At that point, one can even say that it's about the greatest joy of all, the joy of creation.
The harmonic language is very advanced and would remind the average music lover of his piano music. Scriabin had a condition called Synesthesia, in which a person associates musical pitches with a color. Scriabin took this to the next level and constructed an instrument designed to radiate color when certain keys are pressed, called the Clavier à lumières, or the color organ. Only one of these was made and used for a performance of his 'Prometheus' in 1915.
The same harmonic language (built around intervals of fourths) found in 'Ecstasy' can also be found in his Sonata No. 5 from 1907. (found below) and in 1910's Prometheus, which is sometimes called Symphony No. 5 but is really a symphony, symphonic poem and piano concerto hybrid.
From Sonata 5 and onward however, the language became more and more complex and by the time we reached 1913's Black Mass sonata (Sonata No. 9), Scriabin has conjured harmonies from another planet it seems (Scriabin's harmonic language was so advanced in Black Mass, that he often felt uncomfortable while playing this piece) The purpose behind the music also became more philosophical and mystic. For example, one of his last works, called Prefatory Action, was meant to be performed at the base of the himalayas with a spectacular group of dancers and musicians and was intended to be a week long and conjure up the end of the world. It was meant to be part of larger work, called Mysterium, which he never finished.
The Poem of Ecstasy is about 20 minutes in length and require very large forces. Despite this, it is among the most performed and recorded of Scriabin's orchestral music (there were more than 5 performances worldwide this year).
Set in one singular movement, the entire piece can be seen as one large philosophical statement. There is a variety of moods in the score, ranging from stormy to restless to relaxed and in the end, extremely passionate and fiery. The entire piece is extremely evocative, and someone studying the score can find tempo indications such as 'Tragico' (tragic), 'Dramatico' (dramatic), 'avec une noble et joyeuse emotion' (with a noble and joyful emotion), 'charme' (charm or fascination) and 'presque en delire' (almost delirious).
First page of the score (note the sense of timelessness and stillness of the first part of the piece is physically visible):
While studying the score to this piece, I listened to multiple recordings to compare and study how different conductors approach this massive work. Here are some of my favorites.
Evgeny Svetlanov, USSR Symphony Orchestra
Russian orchestra, russian conductor....what more could one want? The rendition here is very powerfully played but due to it being an old recording, some of the auditory levels can be a bit harsh to listen to a certain points (esp. the loud moments). Svetlanov's tempos are perfect and allow the music to flow without dragging or pushing forward too much.
Riccardo Muti, Philadelphia Orchestra
To me, this is one of the two definitive recordings of this piece. Muti has completely mastered every nuance of the score, bringing out details one might miss on a first listen or look at the score. Muti takes the concept of Scriabin's joy to another level and makes the music a living, breathing entity. Some moments worth listening to in this recording would be: 13:46 in the video where Muti lets the violin theme become the dominant voice and draws the trombone fanfares out (some conductors blow through this) and the climax of the piece beginning at 17:51. I also have a 2015 live recording with Muti and Chicago Symphony Orchestra that's good but does not get anywhere near this one, which was recorded in 1990.
Anton Nanut, Ljubljana Symphony Orchestra
Music lovers will recognize the name Anton Nanut from many budget recordings of the classic masterworks with the same orchestra. Even though this is a budget recording as well, Nanut's interpretation is top-notch. His handling of the instrumental colors show the mastery of his skill as a conductor, budget label or not. The orchestra sounds excellent too.
Igor Golovschin, Moscow Symphony Orchestra
Here is my second definitive version, a recording from 1995 on the huge budget label Naxos. Another Russian orchestra and conductor, it's beautifully conducted, recorded and played. The handling of the climax is superb and the last note is extremely satisfying. (warning: make sure your headphones aren't turned all the way up at the end.) Definitely worth repeated listens.
St. Petersburg Festival Orchestra
I couldn't find any info on the conductor, but I like this version as well for its passionate playing and the handling of the climax.
Honorable mention: Claudio Abbado, Boston Symphony Orchestra
I like this interesting version, although I find that Abbado doesn't really bring out the best moments in the piece, of which the most substantial is the climax. It's well played and recorded, however.
My least favorite: Yuri Ahronovitch, Frankfurter Museumorchester
I don't like this version simply because of the conductor just blowing through the climax like he's trying to catch a flight or something. In fact, the overall feel of the music is rushed and the best moments in the score pass us by. The whole recording feels like a rush job and the entire evocative mood of the score is lost.
The main reason Poem of Ecstasy is one of my favorite pieces of music is how vividly the music depicts euphoria and passion. The orchestration is excellent, even ahead of its time. Not one instrumental voice is wasted. It's a piece I keep coming back to repeatedly, and each time it piques my curiosity and makes me think deeply about the concept of creation and bliss.
For my next blog post I will explore my favorite recordings of Igor Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring), perhaps my favorite orchestral work of all time.