Spring Symphonies: 16/60 Scriabin: Symphony No 1
Scriabin wrote this symphony over the edge of the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries and it was premiered in 1901. Its a rather bold symphony in 6 movements as big as most of his other works are small. It has so many nods towards, if not completely lifted ideas, from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde that it’s hard at first to credit Scriabin with anything original here. But it’s what he does with this potent Wagnerian musical bloodline: crafting, shaping, darkening and lightening in six short movements. It presents a host of different colours and moods and a very direct melodious ear which mean every time his tunes are engaging. We should remember this is nothing like the rest of his symphonies (setting aside the unfinished Universe symphony) and that virtually everything else he wrote was for piano and of short duration (though what a catalogue of works that is).
From the outset we hear Tristan in the gradually emerging opening chord from deep in the strings, and overlaying this a solo violin brings a heady perfume to these opening bars. I’ve written “sultry” in my listening notes and that’s maybe a going a bit too far but there is something extremely sensually pleasing about Scriabin’s writing. There’s a hint too of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe music too (though this was written 12 years later) and moments of Debussy.
The next movement is perhaps the first movement proper if it’s predecessor is some sort of introduction or prologue. It strides into a strong tempestuous wind which is when calm dark and mysterious and occasionally over-heats with brass sonorities. There’s a long striving melody which is repeated and becomes more ardent with that. There are repetitions in melody and in accompaniment where the waves of Tristan’s tragic voyage beat against the undulating underbelly of the symphony. It is almost a living thing so vital are it’s parts.
The Lento slow movement shines like the moon on the sea - so often wind writing weaves a rich soundscape with the strings but neither is ever overbearing or over- boring. At one point in sa dramatic turn for this symphony at least, the music slips into the minor with some sense of portent but winds offer some relieve in passages which switch between quicksilver mood changes by the strings. The trick here is I think to relax into it like a soothing bath.
The fourth movement is scherzo of wit and urbanity. The music scampers along glistering here and there. Scriabin had a turn of phrase - he knew the melody juste and here it bears comparison with some of his countrymen’s work. Scriabin is shorter breathed, but his balance of harmony, melody and timbre are remarkable given this is his first major orchestral work. It is rather like watching clouds go by but has more
The fifth movement continues a theme of urgent ardency, coupled with more rhetoric than its siblings. It has a sweep like Rachmaninov and a tumultuous middle section to match - perhaps more daring in its harmonic leaps and even more fervent. The end is a reprise of the main theme with rich woodwind ornamentation building in texture and just close to where you expect a resolution he takes the less obvious route and ends in defiance.
The sixth and final movement has a couple of soloists and chorus - the words are a hymn of praise to the Glory of Art. There is some gorgeous writing here - to be enjoyed for what it is. The lyricism which has pervaded the whole work is reflected one way or another. It is a small work in terms of its content - it’s almost monothematic or at least themes are so similar they are hard to distinguish. But no matter - love this work perhaps more than any symphony prior to Shostakovich. The sickly nostalgia and insincerity - not to mention note spinning - for Scriabin’s national predecessors is forgotten. Here we have as finer judge of harmonic and melodic adventure as there is, practising his art. Its a great shame we didn’t get an opera from him. We did get (depending how you count theme) 4 or 5 other symphonies - they are all in my view a bit more oblique than this work. Late Scriabin has its place - on transcendental late night surveys of the other worldly. But as in his first five piano sonatas, there much to be heard here that is good music supremely well constructed.
The chorus enters after the soloists muse. The centre piece of the movement is a fugue which swells in true climatic style but doesn’t take too long to do it. When faced with two route of equal length Scriabin will always take the more scenic - but it will never take longer. When the choral climax comes - it is simplicity itself and so heartfelt. One imagines any chorus would love this. The brass sound out the main theme and the chorus tops it off. I’ve already exchanged all the Mahler there is for 6 minutes of Sibelius but were I to have a choice between Mahler 2 and Scriabin 1 - the latter would generally get my vote - it is not trying to hard. And it pleases many times over.
Here’s the evergreen recommended version on disc on Youtube - Riccardo Muti and the Philly Orchestra - enjoy, just enjoy it - that’s all there is to this.