Not quite such divine decadence

Russian National Orchestra/Pletnev, Barbican Hall, London
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The Independent Culture

"I AM God," said Alexander Scriabin, daring to express what many artists feel. No wonder Rimsky-Korsakov found him "posing and opinionated", and also "warped". Yet Scriabin's music has had a much greater influence on other composers than that of his commercially more successful contemporary Sergei Rachmaninov, and it still exercises the minds of musical analysts who wouldn't give Rachmaninov a second thought.

"I AM God," said Alexander Scriabin, daring to express what many artists feel. No wonder Rimsky-Korsakov found him "posing and opinionated", and also "warped". Yet Scriabin's music has had a much greater influence on other composers than that of his commercially more successful contemporary Sergei Rachmaninov, and it still exercises the minds of musical analysts who wouldn't give Rachmaninov a second thought.

Still, the idea that Scriabin was spiritually and artistically "unhealthy" persists, and even cropped up in the programme notes for the three concerts by the Russian National Orchestra at the Barbican last week. These featured the fragrant and lyrical Piano Concerto of 1896, and the three great orchestral works that defined Scriabin's emergent individuality in the 1900s -- The Divine Poem, The Poem of Ecstasy and Prometheus, The Poem of Fire.

Warped or not, The Poem of Ecstasy amply justified Scriabin's pretentiousness, or at least made it forgivable, in the effulgent performance which Mikhail Pletnev conducted in the first concert. It followed the Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner's Tristan un Isolde very effectively, because its harmonic style takes Tristan to a further stage and perpetuates an extremity of tension that is deliberately left unresolved.

But quite what Tchaikovsky's Symphony No 6 (the "Pathetique") was doing in the same programme puzzles me, unless it was merely to establish a historical point of reference, for it was played in a strangely disengaged fashion.

Pletnev was also unduly languid, the following evening, in The Divine Poem, the symphony which Scriabin wrote just before The Poem of Ecstasy. Its first movement, which Scriabin called "Struggles", had hardly any intensity at all, though the ensemble playing was clean.

Before it, Pierre-Laurent Aimard did a heroic job introducing at considerable length, and playing with remarkable lucidity, some of the piano music Scriabin wrote towards the end of his life - the Ninth Sonata, the aphoristic, glowering last set of Preludes, and the three magical Etudes Op 65. Yet what Aimard said was pretty routine sign-posting, and his playing - perhaps understandably in the circumstances - missed some of the essential colour and mystery of Scriabin's music.

Aimard had an even tougher task interviewing the laconic Kaisa Salmi about her lighting design for Prometheus in Saturday's concert. She evidently had little command of English, so we didn't get the discussion that was promised. Scriabin actually indicated the changing colours he wanted as musical notation, though he never saw it realised. One line of notes changes only seldom and the colours express the main spiritual stages the audience is meant to experience - these swamped the whole front and ceiling of the hall. The counterpoint of more rapidly changing spots of colour was less clear. But Salmi also projected great swirling abstract patterns, a bit like Kandinsky's early abstract paintings magnified, though of course they had to compete with the Barbican's rather fussy decorative woodwork which they overlaid. It was all rather confused.

But the musical performance itself was impressive, with Aimard pounding away at the concertante piano in Prometheus part very effectively. More so than in the Concerto before the interval, in which he made the intricately decorative solo part brittle instead of fleet and charming. It's true that much of it is awkward to negotiate, but he seemed to be forcing it unduly.

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