The Compact Collection

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The Independent Culture

According to Alexander Scriabin, it would have taken just seven days of music, drama and ritual to transform the human race. He had grand plans for his mighty Mysterium, right down to the venue - which was to be a custom-built temple in India - and the multi-coloured lighting. Alas, Scriabin developed a septic carbuncle on his upper lip and died at the age of 43, leaving little of Mysterium save for 53 pages of musical sketches and a generous folio of mystical poetry. And those were just for the preparations.

According to Alexander Scriabin, it would have taken just seven days of music, drama and ritual to transform the human race. He had grand plans for his mighty Mysterium, right down to the venue - which was to be a custom-built temple in India - and the multi-coloured lighting. Alas, Scriabin developed a septic carbuncle on his upper lip and died at the age of 43, leaving little of Mysterium save for 53 pages of musical sketches and a generous folio of mystical poetry. And those were just for the preparations.

Fifty-five years on and the composer Alexander Nemtin discovered that sketches for The Preparation for the Final Mystery were still lying on Scriabin's Moscow writing desk. He read them, put them in order and spent the next 26 years of his life attempting to make sense of them. The results come closer in spirit to the composer's difficult late style than anyone could have reasonably expected. The canvas is vast, and the chosen palette, crowded with all manner of colour and shading. It's a truly miraculous achievement.

As if to mirror the stresses of Nemtin's colossal undertaking (he died not long after completing it), Vladimir Ashkenazy's remarkable 1996-7 Berlin recording has been a "rumoured" release for at least the last two years - which, of course, makes its long-awaited appearance doubly exciting. The potential market for this set would include, quite apart from romantic revivalists and fans of musical exotica, anyone remotely interested in film music.

The Preparation arrives from whence it came, on a sickly chord reminiscent of Scriabin's earlier Prometheus, shouldered by the brass and with fervid pianistic stirrings in tow. This is "Universe", "a joyful revelation of the world" where lower strings lend a spot of lushness to the texture (track 22) and a wordless chorus cries from the far distance. "Mankind" unfolds "forests, fields, deserts, animals, birds, fish", conjuring memories of Berg for the second episode and launching a primeval processional for the third. The wild closing sequence opens con timidezza and climaxes like the "War Dance" from Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé.

The Superman of the story has been banished for warmongering and in "Transfiguration" he longs for death. There's an orchestrated Scriabin piano Prelude, an unearthly fugue per enigmi and a contemplatif section where windblown harmonies engage a distant soprano in the manner of Vaughan Williams. The most disturbing moment arrives five minutes from the end ("Calme-extatique", on track 11). Grating brass chords raise an alarm and the work exhales on a terminal sigh.

It's a dizzying upheaval, nearly three hours' worth, enough to sate even the greediest hedonist. There's nothing else quite like it in repertory, though the ballet that opens the same set comes close. Nuances anticipates The Preparation's last section by orchestrating some of Scriabin's mysterious "late" piano pieces, segueing from one to the next while leaving the solo pianist to recollect odd remnants of the originals. Nuance is a relatively gentle "first step" before you embark on the bigger journey. As to where you go from there - Heaven knows!

Scriabin/Alexei Lubimov (piano), Thomas Trotter (organ), Ernst Senff Choir, St Petersburg Chamber Choir, etc; Deutsches Symphonie-Orchestre Berlin/Vladimir Ashkenazy Decca 466 329-2 (three discs)

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