UNDERRATED : A mystic madman's message for the millennium

The case for Scriabin
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The Independent Culture
Poised at the gates of our new-born century, a musical mystic schooled in the "old ways" waved goodbye to Chopin, Schumann and his imperial Russian compatriots. His future path would earn him more derision than respect; he would abandon tonal centres in search of the stars; compose a passionately out-reaching Poem of Ecstasy and employ colours and esoteric texts in pursuit of an all-embracing synthesis of the arts. The hinterland he inhabited has since been thought of as a cul-de-sac, but actually stretches to the present. The Firebird was born there, its plumage all the brighter and its song infinitely more haunting than they would have been without the work's true spiritual father: Alexander Scriabin.

And yet there are still commentators who mistake Scriabin's prophetic allusions for empty delusions of grandeur, who conveniently forget that, far from following some random stream of consciousness, Scriabin's greatest music is minutely organised and recognisably structured. Nowadays, the piano works tend to attract the larger share of critical attention - the late essays especially, with their satanic trillings and capricious rhythmic computations.

But turn to the orchestra and the hapless Prometheus, whose demolishing thunder stops short of breaking all the rules, and Scriabin's private world turns public. The opening cluster - the celebrated "mystic chord" - is perhaps the most terrifying in all music: a grey sickly hum, at once both humid and threatening. A half-crazed piano part suggests a manic scout or high priest, while frenzied climaxes alternate with moments of uneasy repose; and when the chorus eventually enters and a strange light breaks, we're confused at what we see. This is a completely new gospel, infinitely removed from Schoenberg's atonalism, Stravinsky's neo-classicism or the pulsing therapies of minimalism. Scriabin's music is like radium; its glow is unsettling yet permanent; its properties potentially life- saving, especially now, when so much modern music seems destined to die of boredom.

Some commentators have likened Scriabin to a psychedelic prince caught in the web of his own excesses, or a decadent Messiah unworthy of his disciples. He has fallen victim to fashionable critical cliches, crushed by the bandwagon of drug-induced unreality with its legacy of escapism, nihilism and "free love". But Scriabin is greater than all these fads; his work grows mightier the more we study it, the more closely we look into its infinitely complex workings.

And just consider the roll-call of his defendants, his numerous celebrated interpreters and the dedication with which they have served his cause. Pianists like Horowitz, Richter, Ashkenazy, Sofronitzky and Feinberg, conductors such as Stokowski, Koussevitsky, Mravinsky, Golovanov and Svetlanov - all have given Scriabin performanceswidely considered as among the high spots of their careers. And the catalogue of convinced initiates extends to much younger artists: Muti, Sinopoli, Abbado, Kitaenko, Pletnev, Pizzaro and many more, a veritable army, eager to lead this most misunderstood of masters towards the millennium and beyond.

Robert Cowan