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On the 13th August 1974, I, along with the rest of my family, attended a performance of The Planets by Gustav Holst at a Proms Concert on the 13th August 1974 with Sir Adrian Boult conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra (the earlier part of the concert included Beethoven’s Overture Leonore No. 1 and Béla Bartók’s Piano Concerto No 3 with Colin Davis in the frame). We nearly didn’t make the concert, as we’d decided to enjoy an early meal in a restaurant nearby (Italian, I think, but I’m not sure). The service was slow, and not helped by a nearby table whose occupants insisted in not paying their bill. Fortunately, we did make the concert, but with only two minutes to spare. As I recall, everyone was hyperventilating on arrival!

Sir Adrian Boult was an early champion of Holst (non-ironic, clap, clap!) but in matters bordering on ‘the mystical’, he was a sort of Brexiteer of his time, especially when it came to Alexander Scriabin. For whatever reason, the grand man simply “refused to play the Scriabin selections chosen by the BBC programmer Edward Clark, calling it "evil music”, and even issued a ban on Scriabin's music from broadcasts in the 1930s”. [Wikipedia]

What a psychoanalyst would make of this, I wouldn’t dare to guess!

Suffice it to say, Scriabin was (contra Boult) a great composer of the 20th century. Drawing judiciously upon Chopin, Debussy, as well as early Stravinsky and Schoenberg, he takes his listeners into some very strange and extraordinary places. Yes, there are the many wonderful piano works which span his career. In addition, there are the first two symphonies which ought to be better known, as well four remarkable symphonic tone poems:
The Divine Poem (French: Le Divin Poème) in 1905, The Poem of Ecstasy (French: Le Poème de l'extase) in 1908, Prometheus: The Poem of Fire (French: Promethée: Le Poème du Feu) in 1910 and, lastly, the unfinished Preparation for the Final Mystery (French: Mysterium: L'Acte Préalable) in 2013 (later realised by Alexander Nemtin).

Prometheus employs orchestral resources as expansive as Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder and Stravinsky’s Petrushka and, in addition, features a clavier à lumières. Simply put, it’s an absolute tour de force, an elemental re-interpretation of the ancient Greek myth.

If the English do not understand Americans (as they regularly don’t), they most certainly do not understand Russians. The passion (intellectual as well as erotic), the respect for metaphysics, the demands for ultimate sacrifice...they are rarely not found in the frame!

The version below features Pierre Boulez conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. (Another version worth exploring is Valery Gergiev’s recording with the Kirov Orchestra on the Philips label.)

[NB The track below is offered in the lossless FLAC format (in this instance in 96/24 HD) which is now supported by most recent browsers and operating systems.]

Track of the Month

Alexander Scriabin