Alexander Scriabin's Preparation for the Final Mystery
as realized by Alexander Nemtin
Originally Posted by Alexander Scriabin
"In love's godlike breathing, there's the innermost aspect of the universe."
"My 10th Sonata of insects. Insects are born from the sun... they are the sun's kisses."
"I am God. I am nothing, I'm play, I am freedom, I am life. I am the boundary, I am the peak."
Alexander Scriabin was known for two distinctive periods of contrasting compositional styles. In his early career he wrote what has been critically yet aptly labeled as Chopin-imitation music, and in his later career he wrote in a more original style, embracing post-tonal chromaticism. His later works brought him much critical acclaim and his pieces are among the best in family of rich, chromatic etudes from the early 20th century (see also Bela Bartok
). However, as noticeable in the quotations above, Scriabin was intense, megalomaniacal, and eccentric, which likely fed his creativity. Scriabin is famous for his general catalogue of works, which includes the etudes, sonatas, prelude, mazurka, etc., but he is also notorious for his final unfinished piece Mysterium
is a multi-movement (I think 9), multi-media (music, visual art, dance), week long piece that was meant to herald the beginning of the apocalypse. That is, Scriabin truly believed that when his piece was performed with a symphony, choir, dancers, and a full set on location at the base of the Himalayas, God would come before mankind and initiate the day of judgement. This aspiration and belief represents the quintessential mix of insanity and genius that made Scriabin such a compelling composer. However, if the apocalypse was to have occurred at the climax of Mysterium
, why were we not done judgethed by God in the early 20th century? Well, Scriabin died before he could complete the piece, leaving behind only sketches and fragments of his intent, and considering the vast scale of his production, some believed he could never actually perform the piece properly (I heard something about it requiring 100 meter long prop clouds suspended in midair). Also, there's the issue that Mysterium
may have not been the vessel through which God trashes all sinners and infidels. Despite these criticisms, Scriabin's piece is still incredibly fascinating in its slinky melodies, rich harmonies, and grandiose scale.
Before looking at the specifics of this recording and its creator, Alexander Nemtin, I feel it's important to appreciate some of the theories Scriabin was grappling with in this composition. Not only is the general sound of his music very alluring and mysterious, but his rational and theoretical ideas behind that sound is equally perplexing. The linchpin of Scriabin's music is the [url=http://content.answers.com/main/content/wp/en/0/0b/Mysticchord.png]synthetic chord[/url] (aka Mysterium/Mystic chord, Promethean chord). That general chord form of an augmented fourth (tritone), diminished fourth (enharmonic to a major third), diminished fourth, and two perfect fours, is used through Scriabin's music. In some of his pieces, he just moves that chord in fifths away from itself as if doing some kind of contorted circle of fifths progression, and in others he more subtly insinuates that chord into his harmonies. Predictably in his purportedly most important piece, Mysterium
, it is all over the place. It's unprepared and unresolved dissonance creates a uniquely tense and quavering feel when played out on a piano, and can be immensely powerful when sounded out in full orchestra as heard here. Scriabin used other unique conceptual designs in writing music like writing music on a synaesthetic scale revolving around the circle of fifths, but for the most part, the cogs and gears in his mind churned at their own pace that really can't be described using theory.
It is with that said that I now look at this actual album, which is more so a centaurian work than it is a composition of Scriabin's. As mentioned earlier, Scriabin had only made outlines and composed small fragments so the actual realization of the was not even close to completion when Scriabin died. Those minimal beginnings on the Mysterium
were transformed into the massive piece found on this album by a Russian composer Alexander Nemtin, a lifelong Scriabin scholar. Nemtin used Scriabin's other works to understand how Scriabin composed, and used that knowledge to inform his own completion of Mysterium
. Really the composition is Nemtin's but only after attempting, to some degree, to change his compositional style to closely mirror Scriabin's. So, what we hear when listening to this album is something of a biographical version of Mysterium
As we all know, biographies are bound to have some kind of partisan slant, and it feels like Nemtin's slant is to adhere to Scriabin as closely as possible, sometimes to a fault. It sounds as if he was so claustrophobically immersed in Scriabin's sketches and works that the end result was more Scriabin than Scriabin. Sort of like the automaton doppelganger of Scriabin, resulting in a diminished level of originality. Also, because he had so little to go off of, a lot of material is repeated. In some cases, this repetition makes the piece feel very interwoven and self-referential, but other times it just makes the 3+ hour album homogeneous and tedious. I really do love Scriabin's manic style and I love listening to this album in 40 minute blocks, but beyond that I find my attention moving elsewhere. A nice diversion, to help the pacing, is that the album opens with a collection of Scriabin's shorter piano works under the title "Nuances." This section is refreshing and brief, considering many of Scriabin's piano pieces were brief etudes or poemes. Also it benefits from being authentically Scriabin's, and sounds intriguing and new when reinterpreted with an orchestra. In terms of this specific recording, the conductor is Vladimir Ashkenazy and I believe he is working with the San Francisco Symphony. I haven't heard any other versions of this piece to contrast this particular performance against but nothing here stands out as exceptional or weak. It, like the overall composition, is suitable but not inspired as a whole album.
Overall, while I love the subject matter, the music, the concept, everything, I feel that the overall execution and 3+ hours of material works against the album being solid as a whole. However, for those 40-minute segments in which I listen to this album, I definitely like and am impressed with what I hear. Mysterium
is a massive, unwieldy, and almost haunted or doomed piece. I feel in many ways that it was never meant to be completed or fully realized. This album is a strong and solid attempt but cloys as the performance pushes on. I'd recommend any of Scriabin's shorter works, which are more tightly constructed and refined than this work, but there is definitely an allure to the grandiose Mysterium
, which makes it a special listen, even if it isn't worked out ideally.