Conference Review: Scriabin @ 150

The Scriabin @ 150 conference and celebration, Reading, 24-25 September 2022

This conference was highly informative on a number of fronts and fruitful in discussion, as well as being a most happy and enjoyable occasion, bringing together for the first time many international experts.  Kenneth Smith (Liveprool) and Mark Richards, senior deputy head of Queen Anne’s School, Reading, were the joint originators, and this brought about a close collaboration by the school staff in technical back-up, providing unfailing support for many copiously illustrated lectures and a number of participations via Zoom. An excellent Scriabin recital was performed by the staff accompanist of the school. Few schools could provide a performer of this calibre. Overall, the high level of scholarship was complemented by an equal quality in the many Scriabin performances: Sonatas 2, 3,4, 7, 8 and 9 were performed, often within the framework of the talks.  There was an impressive demonstration of up-to-date technology combined with creative flair in providing lighting effects to find new ways of complementing the performance of Scriabin’s music.

A skilfully devised programme enabled the inclusion of more than twenty substantial talks in one and a half days. Each was video-recorded and the recordings will be sent to all the participants, so that we can make up on the hard choices we had to make in which talks to visit. A regime of good time-keeping was implemented, each group of talks being chaired; time was available for questions and discussion. Topics covered Scriabin’s compositional technique, especially in the middle and later periods;  literary, musical and cultural influences on the composer (particularly the Gesamtkunstwerk concept of Wagner) and his use of light as a means of expression; the reception of the composer in Russia, America and Britain during his lifetime, and a re-assessment of his influence on the generation of Russian composers directly following him. The extraordinary level of emotional tension in the music was examined, and this could be cross-referenced to a lecture (illustrated with sound examples) on Scriabin’s  individual style of performance, which is well documented with early piano rolls and many press reports. The difficulty of assessing performance from rolls owing to their limitations and the varying quality of modern transfers of them was discussed. With so many angles of approach, the complexity and seeming eccentricity of the composer and his ideas were made intelligible in the light of contemporary and historic contexts.

There was a distinguished and wide-ranging faculty of lecturers and performers from Britain, America, Germany, Austria, Italy, and Cyprus. The exhibition of analytical posters on Scriabin’s thought and composition by a mature student preparing a doctoral dissertation on Scriabin’s harmony, who spent his working career as a high-ranking computer expert, gave a further visual dimension to the proceedings, and the inclusion amongst such a distinguished faculty of Martina Frolova-Walker (Oxford), well-known as a broadcaster and writer on Russian music, added lustre.

The beauty of the setting, the well-produced programme book, and the excellent catering  completed a stimulating and satisfying experience.

Simon Nicholls

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *