SCRIABIN Symphony No 2. Piano Concerto
While Scriabin’s Second Symphony is arguably the most conventional of his five from a melodic and harmonic standpoint, it’s not a work that plays itself. In the central Andante, for instance, a conductor has to determine tempos that bring out the music’s expansive lyrical nature while preventing it from rambling. And do we treat what Scriabin called his ‘military parade’ finale as a cumulative extension of what came before, or simply let rip and bait the audience? Or both, if possible? Suffice it to say that the Oslo Philharmonic and their chief conductor Vasily Petrenko brilliantly navigate these challenges, and thereby raise the work’s interpretative bar on disc for vivid detailing, clear yet voluptuous textures, and taking the composer’s expressive directives seriously.
The first movement is a case in point, where the undulating string accompaniments supporting the excellent first-desk solos are appropriately billowy yet rhythmically defined. Dovetailing directly into the second-movement Allegro, Petrenko and his musicians bring lithe, forward-moving ensemble unity to the first theme and the final peroration, as well as shapely contouring of slower, more exposed passages (such as the one for clarinet and strings about 7'07" into the movement). Although the aforementioned third-movement Andante times out to more than 18 minutes (compared to Muti/Philadelphia’s 13, for example), Petrenko’s linear trajectory generates a sense of tension and release that consistently holds your attention; the deliciously scurrying woodwinds in the movement’s first few minutes alone signify felicities up ahead. While the tempestuous fourth movement doesn’t quite match Golovschin’s Naxos version for unbridled sizzle, the Oslo players’ superiority on all levels compensates, and the finale’s transparent orchestral strands and playful demeanour cut through the conventional bluster.
In the Concerto’s first movement, soloist Kirill Gerstein and the orchestra largely interact in a chamber-like manner; the soloist is not afraid to pull back and accompany when others have the big tunes. He takes the thicker, full-bodied chordal climaxes in symphonic stride, rather than italicising them, channelling his considerable virtuosity towards the bigger musical picture. At the same time, I miss the wider dynamic range and palette of characterisation distinguishing Vladimir Ashkenazy’s benchmark recording, notably in the second-movement variations. To cite just one example, notice Gerstein’s straightforward transitional measure into the Allegro scherzando second variation and the supple yet soft-grained edge to that variation’s piano/orchestra interplay. By contrast, Ashkenazy personalises and dramatises the transition, followed by a faster-paced variation where the orchestra’s interjectory flourishes cut through with far more impact. The finale fares best; here the polished synchronicity between Gerstein and Petrenko gains considerable dynamism along the lines of the recent Sudbin/Litton/Bergen recording. To sum up the performances: the concerto is memorable, the symphony is indispensable.