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Alexander SCRIABIN (1872-1915)
Piano sonata No. 1 in F minor Op. 6 (1892) [22:25]
Piano sonata No. 2 in G sharp minor ‘Sonata Fantasy’ Op 19 [12:17]
Piano sonata No. 3 in F sharp minor Op 23 (1897-8) [19:39]
Piano sonata No. 4 in F sharp major Op 30 (1903) [9:43]
Piano sonata No. 5 Op 53 (1907) [12:12]
Piano sonata No. 6 Op 62 (1911) [12:59]
Piano sonata No. 7 ‘White mass’ Op 64 (1911) [12:39]
Piano sonata No. 8 Op 66 (1913) [15:18]
Piano sonata No. 9 ‘Black mass’Op 68 (1913) [8:19]
Piano sonata No. 10 Op 70 (1913) [12:32]
Fantasy Op 28 (1900) [9:34]
Garrick Ohlsson (piano)
rec. August 2014, April/May 2015, Theatre C, SUNY College, Purchase, New York
BRIDGE 9468A/B [76:23 + 71:23]

Scriabin’s ten piano sonatas form the backbone of his musical life, as Beethoven’s thirty two did of his, though I dare say neither composer would be pleased by the comparison. Like Beethoven’s, Scriabin's fall into three periods. The first three find him continuing the massive pianism of the Russian tradition, alleviated by a hefty dose of Chopin. A sudden change comes over him in the fourth and fifth sonatas, which are fully characteristic of his mature work. The last five also form a group on their own, in his most advanced idiom.

Garrick Ohlsson is a pianist I have admired since his recording of the immense Busoni Piano Concerto (Telarc CD 80207). He has also recorded the whole of Chopin (now on Hyperion CDS44351/66 or separate discs) and so has both the power and the delicacy needed for Scriabin. He has recently recorded the Scriabin Poèmes for Hyperion, which have been well received (review review) and previously recorded the Études (Bridge 9287). He is therefore well equipped to tackle the sonatas.

Sonata No. 1 is a big Lisztian work in four movements. Even here you can hear some of the traits which would characterize the mature composer: polyrhythms, a skipping figure (a dotted triplet) in the right hand and a flowing bass line. The slow movement has some delicate writing and is followed by a forceful rather Chopinesque scherzo. The finale is even more Chopinesque, a funeral march – Scriabin thought he had permanently injured a hand. Fortunately he recovered.

He took five years to write Sonata No. 2, titled Sonata-Fantasy. This is in two movements and already you can hear him reducing the weight of some of the writing and introducing a new mood: the second movement is a furious presto, in triple time such as he often used, with something of the air of the finale of Chopin’s B flat minor sonata.

Sonata No. 3 is the last work in four movements but uses themes across all the movements in the cyclic manner of Liszt or Franck. Particularly notable is a passage in the slow movement in which a theme in the middle register is accompanied by both filigree work above and a plunging bass below, a texture he liked and was to use frequently.

Between this and Sonata No. 4 came the Fantasy Op 28 which is included in this programme. It sounds like a movement from an abandoned sonata, in an idiom the composer was leaving behind. Indeed Scriabin forgot that he had written it. It is vigorous but adds nothing new.

With Sonata No. 4 we come to the mature idiom. Forceful writing is reserved for the end of the second of the two movements. The first is gentle, with many grace notes, ornaments and trills. It flowers into a classic example of the three part texture I mentioned. The second movement is a fast dance with a chordal theme, a joyful movement which rises to a huge climax.

The celebrated Sonata No. 5 was written in a few days just after the orchestral Poem of Ecstasy. It is in the one movement form he was to use thereafter for all his sonatas. After the opening like a rocket taking off it alternates yearning passages, marked languido, with a fast dance like that of Sonata No. 4. Another theme is characteristic: a sonorous three note summons to attention like a horn call. It all builds to a huge climax and then takes off again into the sky.

The last five sonatas were all written within two years. They form a group in which Scriabin’s typical pianistic devices are fully deployed. As well as those I have mentioned, there is the fondness for chords in fourths, the complicated polyrhythms which are not meant to be performed metronomically but have the effect of moving the music forward in waves, the snatching bass line, highly chromatic treble themes over a small compass, an increasing use of trills – Sonata No. 10 is dominated by them – and an often enormously complicated texture which has to be notated on three or four staves. Key signatures are abandoned; the harmony becomes very strange indeed and creates a haunting atmosphere. This does create a problem for the composer since with the abandonment of traditional harmony also goes the usual tonal relationships of sonata form. For this reason the works are all relatively short.

Another feature is not directly apparent to the listener but really strikes the performer – or the score reader – Scriabin’s performance directions. From Sonata No. 5 onwards they become increasingly personal: that work begins allegro impetuosos con stravaganza and towards the end we have con luminosità and estatico. Later on he turned to French – the second language for Russians at the time – and we find souffle mystêrieux; onde caressante; le rêve prend forme (clarté, douceur, pureté); ailé; tourbillonant; these are all from Sonata No. 6. My favourite is from Sonata No. 9: avec une douceur de plus en plus caressante et empoisonnée. His former teacher Taneyev said to Scriabin: ‘You are the first composer who, instead of indicating the tempi, writes praise of his compositions’. I take the point, but I find phrases like these both accurate and evocative.

This highly distinctive idiom is is immediately recognizable. Liszt’s first Mephisto waltz, particularly its middle section, perhaps anticipates it. And Scriabin was to exert a wide influence: there are Scriabinesque passages in early Stravinsky and Bartόk, also in Szymanowski and even in Messiaen.

To all this Ohlsson is a reliable guide. He has power and a commendable grasp of structure, so that Sonata No. 7, for example, comes out as a more Beethovenian work than usual. He can also be graceful and delicate: the three part passages in Sonata No. 4 and elsewhere come out with the right kind of glitter and sparkle. He even manages to hold together Sonata No. 8, the longest and arguably the weakest of the last five: it is rather repetitive, not only of its own themes but of some from the other sonatas. And of course Ohlsson is not short of speed when it is needed.

There are many other recordings of these sonatas. For some years the benchmark has been Marc-André Hamelin’s 1995 set on Hyperion CDA67131/2. I dare say it was because they already had this set on their books that Ohlsson’s has not appeared on this label. Compared to Ohlsson Hamelin is more perfumed and poetic in the quiet passages and, though he has no lack of power, Ohlsson is possibly more forceful in the vigorous ones. The result, to my ears, is that Hamelin excels in the later works, which are also the finer, while Ohlsson makes a very good case for the earlier ones. When I compared their versions of the Busoni concerto I preferred Ohlsson and for the same reasons that I prefer Hamelin here.

Ohlsson’s Bösendorfer is a mighty instrument and the recording, though generally adequate, can sound a bit congested at the climaxes. The sleevenote, in English only, gives useful background. These are plainer readings than those of Hamelin and some may prefer them for that reason.

Stephen Barber



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