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CLASSICAL  July 2004

CLASSICAL July 2004

Subject:

The Scriabin Piano Sonatas, Part 1

From:

Donald Satz <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Sat, 10 Jul 2004 14:19:26 +0000

Content-Type:

text/plain

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   Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915)
       The Sonatas for Piano

Complete Numbered Sonatas 1-10
Two Dances, Op. 73
Two Poemes. Op. 32
Four Morceaux, Op. 51
Vladimir Ashkenazy, piano
Recorded 1972-84
Decca 452961 [2cds - 152:11]

Sonatas 2-3, 5-7, 9-10
Fantasy in B minor, Op. 28
Sonata in E flat minor (1887-89)
Poeme-Nocturne, Op. 61
Vers la Flamme, Op. 72
Bernd Glemser, piano
Recorded 1994/97
Naxos 8.553158 [61:53] & 8.555368 [65:15]

Complete Numbered Sonatas 1-10
Sonata-Fantasy in G sharp minor (1886)
Marc-Andre Hamelin, piano
Recorded 1995
Hyperion 67131/2 [2cds - 145:50]

Complete Numbered Sonatas 1-10
Yakov Kasman, piano
Recorded 1996/2003
Calliope 9254 [80:51] & 9255 [62:35]

Complete Numbered Sonatas 1-10
Etude in C sharp minor, Op. 2, No. 1
Eight Etudes, Op. 42
Desir, Op. 57, No. 1
Caresse dansee, Op. 57, No. 2
Vers la Flamme, Op. 72
Ruth Laredo, piano
Recorded 1970
Nonesuch 73035 [2cds - 154:23]

Complete Numbered Sonatas 1-10
Etude in C sharp minor, Op. 2, No. 1
Four Preludes, Op. 48
Two Morceaux, Op. 57
Feuillet d'album, Op. 58
Two Poemes, Op. 63
Two Preludes, Op. 67
Vers la flamme, Op. 72
Five Preludes, Op. 74
John Ogdon, piano
Recorded 1971
EMI Classics 72652 [2cds - 152:49]

Complete Numbered Sonatas 1-10
Sonata-Fantasy in G sharp minor (1886)
Sonata in E flat minor (1887-89)
Three Etudes, Op. 65
Two Poems, Op. 71
Vers la flamme, Op. 72
Two Dances, Op. 73
Five Preludes, Op. 74
Michael Ponti, piano
Recorded 1973-74
Vox Box CDX 5184 [2cds - 158:59]

Complete Numbered Sonatas 1-10
Sonata-Fantasy in G sharp minor (1886)
Sonata in E flat minor (1887-89)
Fantasy in B minor, Op. 28
Roberto Szidon, piano
Recorded 1968-71
Deutsche Grammophon 477049 [3cds - 180:21]

Alexander Scriabin, a most unusual man, composed ten numbered piano
sonatas in addition to two early sonatas.  The chronological line-up
is below:

Sonata-Fantasy in G sharp minor, Op. Posth. (1886)
Sonata in E flat minor, Op. Posth. (1887-89)
Sonata No. 1 in F minor, Op. 6 (1891-92)
Sonata No. 2 in G sharp minor, Op. 19 (1892/97)
Sonata No. 3 in F sharp minor, Op. 23 (1897-98)
Sonata No. 4 in F sharp major, Op. 30 (1903)
Sonata No. 5, Op. 53 (1907)
Sonata No. 6, Op. 62 (1911-12)
Sonata No. 7 (White Mass), Op. 64 (1911-12)
Sonata No. 8, Op. 66 (1912-13)
Sonata No. 9 (Black Mass), Op. 68 (1912-13)
Sonata No. 10, Op. 70 (1912-13)

Concerning the recordings being reviewed, each presents at least the 10
numbered Sonatas except for the Glemser on Naxos where I assume a third
volume will be forthcoming.  Most of the pianists are well known, even
Ruth Laredo "The Lady from Detroit".  Can someone from Detroit possibly
convey the heart of Scriabin's music?  Certainly.  If the city of Detroit
can trounce the L.A.  Lakers and win an NBA Championship, it can definitely
handle Mr. Scriabin.

Actually, Scriabin is not an easy guy to get a good handle on.  As he
matured, he became increasingly eccentric and self-absorbed to the point
where he envisioned an alternate universe with himself at the proverbial
helm.  Scriabin would have made a great cult leader except that he had
little concern for fellow humans.  I think of him as a 'circle of one'.

Musically, there seems to be the notion among some recording pianists
that Scriabin should be played like watered-down Chopin, but that won't
do at all.  It is true that Scriabin's early piano music has striking
similarities with Chopin's music, but Scriabin's musical progression
took him far away from any Chopinesque style.  Generally, Scriabin's
style involves extensive use of cross-rhythms, melancholy that cuts like
a knife, eroticism, wild and desperate climaxes, and the all-important
tension that precedes and makes sense of the climaxes.  Some consider
Scriabin's idiom to be 'overwrought', but I find it powerful, diabolical,
and compelling every step of the way.  Also, I have the feeling that the
'overwrought' description ties into performances that lack the necessary
tension that gives logic to Scriabin's climaxes.

Perusing the list of Scriabin's Sonatas above reveals that he abandoned
tonal centers starting with Piano Sonata No. 5.  Following Scriabin's
development through his piano works is enlightening, for they provide
an immediately recognizable charting of his maturation.  Let's start
at the beginning and see how the chart gets filled in:

Sonata-Fantasy in G sharp minor - A very impressive work for a fourteen
year old teenager, the Sonata-Fantasy reflects Scriabin's first strong
feelings of love and hunger for a member of the opposite sex.  This
one-movement piece immediately establishes an intense yet subtle melancholy
that bursts out of its shell; the 2nd section is lighter in mood but
still tinged with regret and containing a few exciting passages.  Also,
the technical demands on the pianist are quite challenging with chords
having stretches of up to a twelfth and single-hand scales in tenths.

How pianists approach the two sections of the G sharp minor gives a clear
picture of their immersion in Scriabin's sound world.  The melancholy
in the first section should figuratively pierce the heart.  Although the
second section is more optimistic, the typical Scriabin massive sonority
from the lower voices and strong articulation from the upper voices are
needed to provide contrast; otherwise, the section just sounds like a
an attractive plate of mush.

I'm throwing the Stephen Coombs version on Hyperion into the mix, because
it offers nothing but mush in the second section with tension and sonority
inadequate to the task; this is the "watered-down Chopin" I mentioned
earlier in the review.

Fortunately, there's no mush from Szidon, Ponti, or Hamelin as each
incisively captures all the sadness of the first section.  Tempos for
the work range from Ponti's quick reading a little over six minutes in
length to Szidon's eight minute traversal.  Ponti is rhythmically alert
and quite exciting in the 2nd section, but Szidon can drag at times while
missing out on some highly visceral activity.

Of the four versions, I prefer the Hamelin.  That surprises me because
I've never put him in front in any of his previous recordings for Hyperion.
Why now?  None of the other three pianists comes close to Hamelin in
conveying the light-dark contrast of the second section.  His massive
sonority and dark hues are absolutely spell-binding.  Some might argue
that Hamelin stamps this early Scriabin work with an unreasonable level
of maturity; in that case, Szidon's pristine qualities should be very
pleasing.

Sonata in E flat minor - This is a good time to bring up one of Scriabin's
most identifiable and rewarding elements of his musical palette - the
ability to create a environment centered on tremendously powerful and
horrific imagery.  He gives the demonic and granite-like lower voices
the primary melody line with the upper voices creating great confusion
and disorientation.  Although the detailing of each voice is significant,
the major effect is a tremendous barrage of hostile energy.  It hits
hard and can have a staggering impact on listeners depending on who's
playing the piano. Essentially, the pianist must convey the sound of a
'symphony of pianos', because such a display of total wreckage couldn't
possibly be produced by only one instrument.  For those not familiar
with Scriabin's music, just think of Chopin's 24th Prelude of Op. 28
and raise the ante a few notches.  Nobody writes this type of music as
well as Scriabin, and we have his extreme personality traits as well as
his musical talents to thank for it.

The three-movement E flat minor begins with a theme sounding as if all
of Hell's inhabitants have risen to the earth to inflict the most gruesome
events on mankind.  The galloping bass destroys everything in its wake,
and the upper voices are in desperate condition.  Offsetting this carnage
is a wonderfully lyrical second theme in G flat major requiring the
pianist to thoroughly alter his/her emotional state.

Szidon, Ponti, and Glemser offer this Sonata, and Szidon takes the 1st
Movement prize.  Ponti is out of the running due to an excess of rhythmic
liberties that diffuses the concentrated power of the first theme.  Also,
his quick tempo in the second theme detracts from its calming influence;
Ponti's 1st Movement is the quickest of the three, and it all comes
from the second theme.  Glemser is a big improvement over Ponti with an
appropriately powerful and emotionally unbalanced first theme.  However,
listen to Szidon's first theme and the level of wild activity increases
greatly; he's over the top, just where he should be.  Add in an absolutely
transcendent performance of the gorgeous second theme, and we have a
version to treasure.  Szidon's 1st Movement tempos are in the moderate
range, unlike his very slow approach to the Sonata in E flat minor.

As fine as the 1st Movement may be, the 2nd Movement Andantino is a
masterpiece.  A gorgeous first theme followed by a riveting and rhetorical
second theme clearly reveals Scriabin as a melodist and narrator of the
first rank.  This movement also tells us much about how Ponti and Glemser
approach Scriabin's music.  Ponti is quick with fluctuating rhythmic
patterns; Glemser is slow and his rhythms tend to be monolithic.

With Ponti, the first theme is quirky as he fluctuates his phrasing
excessively.  However, nobody cuts into the rhetorical nature of the 2nd
theme as incisively as Ponti.  Unfortunately, he also tends to have a
penchant for some heavy key-banging that is particularly unattractive
given the raw sound on the Vox transfers.  Concerning Glemser, although
he displays little horizontal elasticity, his reading of the 2nd Movement
is thoroughly beautiful, lush, and dream-like.

As in the 1st Movement, Szidon wins the day.  In a sense, his
performance reaches a middle ground between Glemser and Ponti.  His
tempos are moderate, rhythms are flexible without being hectic like
Ponti's, and he is spell-binding when presenting the ascending three-note
phrase that is injected throughout the movement and carries a strong
feeling that resolution is a distant goal.  Further, the rays of light
in the movement are given such a pristine and sparkling display by Szidon
that it seems that Scriabin wrote the piece for him.  So, the 2nd Movement
belongs to Szidon, with Glemser a little more rewarding than Ponti.

The 3rd Movement is in the 'wild and crazy' category, with an opening
theme that goes like gangbusters and often sounds like a mix of jazz and
salsa.  That's not easy to get from a teenager prior to the 20th century.
Other wonderful features include a second theme of more rational content
that still packs intense urgency, the return of the opening theme of
the Sonata, and a conclusion that trails off into the sunset.  Scriabin
finishes in a subdued manner, but he has 10 more sonatas to change all
that.

I derive equal enjoyment from the Szidon and Glemser versions of the
3rd Movement.  Szidon offers more disorientation in the energized first
theme, but Glemser possesses the better rhythm that conjures up images
of intense dance-hall activity.  Once again, Ponti's key-banging mixes
poorly with the primitive acoustic.  Also, there's no trailing off with
Ponti; he pounds those notes into the terra firma.

Update: This seems like a good time for me to trail off.  Before going,
I have to say that that Scriabin's early Sonatas are every bit as good
as anything Mozart wrote as a teenager.  Further, the 2nd Movement of
the E minor is as exceptional as any Mozart work - period.

So far, Szidon is displaying an excellent sense of Scriabin's distorted
personality and his sound world as well.  Glemser is quite impressive
in the Sonata in E flat minor.  He might not be a role-model for musical
elasticity, but he has the dark hues down pat and shows a strong
identification with the composer.  Ponti's quickness and abrupt changes
in rhythm are not always appropriate, and the harshness from his strongest
strokes is never appealing.  I almost forgot about Hamelin and his great
performance of the Sonata-Fantasy in G sharp minor.  He could be a force
to reckon with, and we'll see how he handles the numbered sonatas in
Part 2 of the review.

Don Satz
[log in to unmask]

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