Since he became music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Riccardo Muti has devoted much adventurous effort to widening the orchestra's repertory with previously neglected works. Monday night at the Kennedy Center, he came up with an intriguing find, the virtually unperformed Symphony No. 1 of Alexander Scriabin.
Whatever the ultimate verdict on this immense work, it was clear Monday night that the First Symphony is a creation of enormous ambition and considerable accomplishment -- of brilliant technical skill and, in its sprawling way, cumulative power.
The standard line these days on this turn-of-the-century Russian is that he was an immense talent who wasted it, self-indulgent in the fuzzy mysticism of his later music and self-destructive in his personal life (he died at 43).
This work shows Scriabin at a earlier stage. He was in the process of rejecting his Chopinesque lyric style and turning to big forms. There were also big concepts, derived in part from his immersion in Nietzsche.
The symphony dramatically demonstrates that influence in the cosmic course of its six movements. It opens with a a slow, opulent lento, a symphonic ocean of sonorities. An ardent allegro interrupts. Then there is another lento, with jarring, troubled chords darkening the work's tone. And another allegro is followed by a climactic vocal movement with mezzo, tenor and, finally, chorus proclaiming the glory of art (very Nietzschean).
It is as if the concept of a Mahler symphony were married to the musical vocabulary of Scriabin's close associate, Rachmaninoff. The First Symphony is not of Mahler's quality, but that, roughly, is its direction. The symphony is rhapsodic, excessive, sometimes repetitive, but compelling -- suggestive of a great future that was not to come.
The performance was stunning, as if the work were written for the Philadelphia Orchestra, which was, in fact, Rachmaninoff's favorite orchestra. Mezzo Stefania Toczyska was impassioned, tenor Jon Fredric West only slightly less so. And the Westminster Choir was in fine form.
Earlier, violinist Eugene Fodor was soloist in a sizzling version of Paganini's Second Concerto, and the orchestra was graceful and refined in Handel's first Concerto "a due co ri."