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The Other Russians

September 14, 1986|HERBERT GLASS

Outside the Soviet Union one rarely encounters music by the composers who immediately followed Tchaikovsky, Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov. For example, the once controversial and famous Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915), who gave us such delirious excesses as the "Poem of Ecstasy," "Divine Poem" and the "Black Mass" Sonata. Scriabin: mystic, poseur, sensualist, whose music was intended to lead mankind to a state of eternal ecstasy.

The first two of Scriabin's three symphonies sound rather like flotsam in the wake of Wagnerism. In Scriabin's First Symphony (1899), for instance, think of the most voluptuous passages from Schoenberg's "Gurrelieder" with infusions from the vocal finales of Liszt's "Faust" Symphony and you've got the idea.

Yet the First, with text by Scriabin himself--a florid paean to the "divinity of art"--is grand, overreaching fun, brimful of pungent harmonies, complex rhythms and chromatic schmaltz.

It's difficult to imagine a more dedicated, sumptuously executed and recorded performance than that given by Riccardo Muti with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Westminster Choir (Angel 38260, LP; 7473492, CD). Or less satisfactory solo contributions than those made by the woefully wobbling mezzo-soprano Stefania Toczyska and the balefully bleating tenor Michael Myers. Wasn't Maestro listening?

Scriabin's shorter, more cohesive Second Symphony (1901) takes the Wagnerisms and chromaticism a few steps further, to glimpses of full-flower Scriabin: the composer of the "Poem of Ecstasy," with its woozy rhythms, mistily shifting harmonies and gorgeous orchestral sonorities.

The Second is heard in a trim, clarifying reading by the Scottish National Orchestra directed by our busiest exponent of neglected Romantic and late-Romantic repertory, Neeme Jarvi (Chandos 1176, LP; 8462, CD).

If Scriabin took his inspiration from the West, and mainly from Wagner, the once highly regarded Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936) was the most international and voracious of eclectics.

Glazunov began, in the first three of his eight symphonies, as a Russian nationalist, in the heroic Borodin mold. The fourth and fifth symphonies are Germanic, permeated by pungent whiffs of Beethoven and Wagner (making them sound like early Dvorak). The Eighth Symphony (1906) may be his most progressive in terms of harmony and orchestral technique, but it's also a flat-footed melodic cross between Wagner's "Tannhaeuser" Overture, Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet" and perhaps a tad of Scriabin, all of which begins to sound more like thievery than eclecticism.

While the Glazunov symphonies as a whole may lack strong profile, they are sturdily constructed, often tuneful, certainly sonorous and, well, earnest.

West Germany's Orfeo Records, ever on the lookout for unhackneyed repertory, has thus far recorded six of the Glazunov eight-- Nos. 1, 5 and 8 on 093842; Nos. 2, 4 and 7 on 148852, 2 LPs or 2 CDs each. The conductor is, again, the versatile and persuasive Mr. Jarvi, this time leading the Bavarian Radio Symphony and Bamberg Symphony.

Anton Arensky (1861-1906), best known for his string-orchestra variations on a Tchaikovsky song, wrote symphonies. But on the evidence of what would seem to be first recordings of his two compositions in that form (Chant du Monde/Harmonia Mundi 78026, 2 records, LP only) he was hardly a symphonist.

These works, both dating from the 1880s, are in the folksy-sprightly (rather than heroic) Russian nationalist tradition. But the ideas are never adequately developed. It's as if Arensky had strung together a group of orchestrated piano miniatures, inflating what was wafer-thin material to begin with. The composer's flimsy case is further diminished in heavy-handed, poorly recorded performances by the U.S.S.R. State Academic Symphony under the direction of Yevgeni Svetlanov.

Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov (1859-1935) wisely stuck to short pieces for piano or for orchestra as vehicles for his ingratiating mock-Oriental melodies. The first of his two brilliantly orchestrated suites of "Caucasian Sketches" was once a pops-concert favorite, and its final movement, the gaudy "Procession of the Sardar" (or "Processing of the Sardines," as we called it in Miss Deirdre Mitchell's music appreciation class--but not to her face--at P.S. 93, Manhattan), can still be heard of a summer's eve on the Esplanade in Boston.

The Sydney Symphony plays both suites well enough (on Hong Kong/Harmonia Mundi 8220369, CD), but the conductor, one Christopher Lyndon Gee, beats time when he should be wielding a magic wand. Ippolitov-Ivanov's sinuously gorgeous tunes, borderline kitsch as they may be, deserve better.

And, still on the subject of relatively obscure Russian music, why have the First ("Winter Dreams") and Third ("Polish") Symphonies of Tchaikovsky been unable to gain access to a "standard repertory" so desperately in need of expansion?

They are splendidly tuneful, spirited and sonorous, blessedly lacking the excesses and overexposure of Tchaikovsky's big three. The earlier symphonies sound particularly fresh and engaging in low-key, lithely elegant readings by the Oslo Philharmonic under Soviet conductor Mariss Jansons (No. 1: Chandos 8402, CD; No. 3: Chandos 8463, CD).

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