Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin (1871-1915)
Born on Christmas Day in the old Russian-style calendar, Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin (1871-1915) was perhaps destined for greatness from the very beginning. Having lost his mother to tuberculosis before the age of 2, he was brought up by two aunts who pampered him and strongly supported his musical talents, which were already remarkable at this early age. At the Moscow Conservatory, Scriabin studied piano under Vasily Safonov (1852-1918) and composition under composer and theorist Sergei Taneyev (1856-1915). This era must be considered the golden age of Russian music, with Scriabin, Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943), and Nikolai Medtner (1880-1951) all passing through the conservatory: a formidable trio of pianist-composers. While Scriabin’s early ambitions were directed towards the concert stage, an injury to his right hand caused him to orient himself more to composition. He later recovered his abilities and gained renown as a performer, but increasingly he preferred to play only his own compositions.
Scriabin’s early style is derived unmistakably from the Romantic virtuoso piano tradition, including elements of Schumann, Liszt, Tchaikovsky, and most prominently, Chopin. Chopin’s thumbprints can be found in early Scriabin in his choice of genres, his strongly melodic approach to pianism, many aspects of his harmonic language, and his impeccable compositional logic. Elements that mark Scriabin’s individuality in this period include influences from Russian church music, as well as his own unique approach to piano writing, with aspects of both athleticism and subtle nuance.
Scriabin’s reputation as a miniaturist is well deserved. The great majority of his 74 opuses are devoted to short preludes, etudes, mazurkas, and poèmes. They run the gamut of style from lyrical Romanticism to complex harmonic structures that approach atonality. In difficulty, they range from intermediate level to extremes of virtuosic abandon. Brief and picturesque, each piece possesses a powerful immediacy of vision, and is capable of captivating the listener in the space of a very few notes.
The wealthy timber merchant Mitrofan Beliaev (1836-1904) made an especially important contribution to this period of Russian music by sponsoring many important composers and publishing their works. The “circle of Beliaev” included Rimsky-Korsakov, Glazunov, Liadov, and Scriabin. The contrast between the fragile, diminutive Scriabin and the physically imposing, imperious Beliaev is a study in contrast to the point of caricature. Scriabin – although clearly a brilliant talent, both compositionally and pianistically, with big ideas – was never a reliable character. Although eager to please his benefactor, he was absent-minded, and hated proof-reading and deadlines. Nevertheless, he often had to beg for advances of money in order to get by from day to day. Much correspondence between the two survives; it is at times amusing and at times painful to read.
Beliaev, who was taking a chance on the young Scriabin, devised a strategy to wring out some music from his protégé. In November of 1895, he made a wager that Scriabin wouldn’t manage to write 48 piano preludes by April of the following year. Scriabin managed to pen 47 of these works amidst concert tours to Paris, Dresden, Heidelberg, and Amsterdam. They are akin to a collection of musical postcards. 24 pieces from this collection would become the Preludes, Opus 11, with one prelude in each key in the tradition of Chopin’s Opus 28. (The beginnings of a second cycle can be traced in the key sequence of the subsequent collections Opus 13, 15, and 16). In Opus 11, the location of composition is often inscribed beneath the musical score. The opening Prelude in C major Opus 11, No. 1 appears to pay homage to Chopin’s Prelude No. 1 in the same key, but its language is nevertheless original, foretelling Scriabin’s subsequent innovations in rhythm. The group of preludes in the middle of the Opus 11 collection, particularly, is a series of true gems. They rank among the finest miniatures in the entire repertoire.
The Four Preludes, Opus 22 opens with another of Scriabin’s greatest miniatures, No. 1 in G-sharp minor, showing his preference for widely-spaced left hand configurations: a feature already to be found in much of Opus 11. The three other preludes feature a similarly limpid simplicity, and precision of design, although the listener will be drawn to their moods of gentle melancholy rather than to their formal characteristics.
The genesis of the Sonata-Fantasy in G-sharp minor, Opus 19 is another story of Beliaev badgering the composer endlessly for his material. In this case, Scriabin was experimenting with a new formal structure for a piano sonata, and one can only sympathize with the composer’s perfectionistic tendencies. Inevitably, the gestational period of the work was a long one; no other piece ever took so long for him to complete. Finally, in October 1897, he let the sonata go to the printers, but clearly the piece had continued to evolve in his mind for years after the publication, and one can hear still further changes in his later piano roll recordings.
This work has been one of the most popular among Scriabin’s ten sonatas with pianists and successful with the public. The overall design of the Second is highly original: its two movements are perfectly proportioned and complementary. Although both movements share the tonic of G-sharp minor, the first is left tonally open in E major, connecting directly to the Finale’s tonic key of G-sharp minor without risking tonal monotony. The elaborate decorative filigree at the end of the opening movement is transformed naturally into the essential figuration of the Finale. Scriabin wrote of inspiration he took in this work from the sea. With his special talent for immediacy, he piques the listener’s ear at the first hearing with his vivid tonal palette. One can clearly hear his imagery: the splash of the surf in the opening movement, and the turbulence of the waves in the Finale. The Two Impromptus, Opus 14 (1895) offer first salon charm and then introspective melancholy, the latter one also noteworthy for its rhythmic originality, in a manner recalling Schumann as much as Chopin.
The Twelve Etudes, Opus 8 form Scriabin’s early statement in this virtuoso genre. His choice of a set of 12 pieces is surely designed to match Chopin’s Twelve Etudes, Opus 10 and Twelve Etudes, Opus 25. The final two Etudes of Scriabin’s Opus 8 are deservedly the most popular. The B-flat minor tugs at the heart with its aching, elegiac melancholy. Its Coda forms a perfect harmonic connection into Scriabin’s most celebrated composition, the D-sharp minor Etude, which has become the favored encore of many a virtuoso. Its torrent of virtuosic forward motion will be familiar to the listener from the Preludes, Opus 11, No. 1 in C major and especially No. 14 in E-flat minor, its close cousin. Scriabin also agonized over the final version of this Etude, of which a little-known, rarely-played earlier version also survives. Revisions to the now-familiar version emphasize concision and clarity, and replace the original mysterious pp ending with a powerful conclusion in fff, greatly enhancing the work’s public appeal and bringing his Etude collection to a blazing conclusion. — Matthew Bengtson
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