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Hyperion Records

CDA66607 - Scriabin: The Complete Études

Recording details: May 1992
St Martin's Church, East Woodhay, Berkshire, United Kingdom
Produced by Martin Compton
Engineered by Tony Faulkner
Release date: November 1992
Total duration: 53 minutes 27 seconds

'All the fiendish technical demands are well in his grasp, and his keen musical intelligence and finely discriminating ear do the rest' (BBC Record Review)

'Such virtuosity … deserves engineering of a high calibre and here we get it. Quite extraordinary clarity and wide-ranging tonal fidelity in a spacious recording which places the listener at an ideal distance in a warmly welcoming acoustic setting' (Gramophone 'Sounds in Retrospect')

'Piers Lane is easily up to tackling the volatile figures that abound in Scriabin's piano music. Indeed, his technical bravura is often breathtaking … Thankfully Lane never lets us forget that the virtuosic and poetic exist in equal measure' (BBC Music Magazine Top 1000 CDs Guide)

The Complete Études
C sharp minor  [1'28]
F sharp minor  [1'36]
B minor  [1'47]
B major  [2'04]
E major  [1'57]
A major  [1'43]
B flat minor  [1'54]
A flat major  [4'12]
G sharp minor  [4'31]
D flat major  [1'48]
B flat minor  [4'12]
D sharp minor  [2'14]
D flat major  [1'47]
F sharp minor  [0'55]
F sharp major  [0'52]
F sharp major  [2'43]
C sharp minor  [2'53]
D flat major  [1'28]
F minor  [0'51]
E flat major  [1'55]
[untitled]  [3'24]
[untitled]  [1'51]
[untitled]  [1'36]
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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
The virtuoso Russian composer-pianist is a major phenomenon of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Doyen of the breed was the leonine Anton Rubinstein (1829–1894), who heard Scriabin’s graduation recital at the Moscow Conservatoire in 1892 and was so taken with the young student’s Mazurka, Op 3 No 4, that he got up on stage and improvised variations on its theme.

Russian romantic pianism has its roots in the West. John Field (1782–1837), a Clementi pupil and early Romantic, inventor of the Nocturne, spent much time in St Petersburg and died in Moscow. Adolf von Henselt (1814–1889), pupil of Hummel and master of a wide stretch and a velvety legato, both of which are reflected in his own Études, settled in St Petersburg in 1838. Among his pupils was Nikolai Zverev, whose first teacher had studied with Field and who himself became a formidable pedagogue. Scriabin (1872–1915) joined Zverev’s class at the age of thirteen. A fellow pupil was Rachmaninov; one year younger, he was to outlive Scriabin by twenty-eight years. Scriabin was by all accounts an inimitable, if erratic, performer of his own works. Alexander Pasternak, younger brother of Boris, contrasts the ethereal, bell-like quality of Scriabin’s piano sound with the weightier approach of Rachmaninov. He reports that Scriabin, like his boyhood idol Chopin, achieved his forte by contrast. During intensive study at the Conservatoire under Vassily Safonov, who had insisted on a less superficial keyboard approach, Scriabin’s misguided zeal in overpractising caused an injury to his right hand. This led not only to the composition of some beautiful works for left hand alone (the Prelude and Nocturne, Op 9, and a lost virtuoso Waltz) but also to a deepening of keyboard texture, with extremely inventive and demanding left-hand writing and ultimately a multi-layered approach, often with two simultaneous sound levels in the left hand. Piano roll performances recorded in 1910 preserve Scriabin’s extreme rhythmic freedom but not his exquisite tonal control or his subtle pedal technique; this had already drawn praise from Safonov during student days.

To listen to the complete Études as presented on this disc is to hear the gradual but total transformation from within of Scriabin’s musical language from the earliest significant compositions to the final period. He began with a richly romantic and strongly emotional style centred on Chopin (whose music he kept under his pillow as a teenager), and a pronounced leaning towards highly flavoured chromatic harmonies, such as the ‘French sixth’—a chord with profound anti-tonal implications, consisting as it does of two interlocking tritones. (The old theorists dubbed this interval ‘diabolus in musica’.) After 1900 Scriabin turned the microscope of his musical imagination with increasing intensity onto these highly-charged and emotive sounds, gradually working out their implications for harmony and melody. At the same time the texture and rhythmic structure of the music became increasingly intricate and fluid, while his sense of form, based on early studies with the contrapuntist Taneiev, grew ever more focused and concentrated. This provided the necessary balance to the overwhelmingly expressionistic, often erotic, urge in the musical material.

The Étude Op 2 No 1 is an astonishingly mature teenage composition from 1887. A study in tonal balance, pedalling and cantabile chord playing, it is typically Russian in its long-breathed, arching phrases and passionate melancholy, revealing an early affinity with Rachmaninov. Scriabin’s favourite French sixth can be heard in bar eight.

The twelve Études Op 8 (completed 1894) cost Scriabin much effort and revision. He played some of them in his St Petersburg debut the following year. Virtuoso piano technique is explored exhaustively: thirds, sixths, octaves and a wide variety of broken chord figurations create a rich tonal palette. Rhythmic complexity and chromatic harmony point into the future, though the language and gestures are those of late Romanticism.

The fluttering triplet figures and tender phrases of No 1, together with almost constant two against three cross-rhythms, express a joyful agitation which contrasts strongly with the moody, Oriental arabesques of No 2. Here rhythm is fluid and rhapsodic and melody exotic, angular and zig-zagging.

The marking of No 3, ‘Tempestoso’, together with the heading ‘Brioso’ for No 5, never satisfied Scriabin. This is an early example of an increasing desire to express in words the content of his music. Later he was to take this to such lengths with such annotations as ‘divin’ and ‘sublime’ in The Divine Poem (Symphony No 3, Op 43) that his old teacher Taneiev remarked drily: ‘You are the first composer to write praise of your compositions instead of performance directions.’ However, the violently alternating double and single notes across the 6/8 metre in this study, further complicated later by left hand cross-rhythms, are indeed tempestuous. This Étude anticipates the oceanic imagery of the second Sonata’s finale (work on the Sonata extended from 1892 to 1897).

The widely spaced arpeggio figurations of No 4 evoke much gentler ripples on the waters of the psyche. Here, too, metre is blurred by cross-rhythms (five against three). Nos 5 and 6 are contrasting studies in fiery octaves and graceful legato sixths; No 7, ‘Presto tenebroso, agitato’, exploits athletically demanding left hand broken chords, in triplets across the beat. The difficulty and the ghostly, scurrying character are enhanced by the ‘pp sotto voce’ marking. The chromatic pathos of the central section and its orchestral sonorities point to future developments.

No 8 is a tender song written for Scriabin’s first love, Natalya Sekerina. Intended for her to play, its technical demands are kept to a modest level, unlike those of No 9, an octave study on an epic scale as suggested by the marking ‘alla ballata’. The second subject’s rocking rhythm is a clear tribute to the Chopin of the Ballades.

With No 10 the virtuosic element is again at its height. Staccato chromatic thirds in the right hand together with a gymnastically mobile left convey an exultant sensation of flight—a lifelong preoccupation with Scriabin. Boris Pasternak described in his Essay in Autobiography how on country walks the composer would suddenly and excitedly skip on ahead, skimming the ground.

The melancholy falling sequences of No 11 are an idealization of folk melody akin to the song of the Georgian girl in the piano part of Rachmaninov’s song Oh, cease thy singing, maiden fair, Op 4 No 4, written between 1890 and 1893. The Étude gives a necessary moment of repose before the heaven-storming onslaught of No 12, Scriabin’s own ‘Revolutionary’ Étude. Technically this is another octave study; emotionally it marks the final peak of the cycle. The defiant gestures of the right hand (not dissimilar to Chopin’s in his Op 10 No 12) are propelled by wide-ranging left-hand figurations which give way to irresistibly onward-pressing repeated chords in both hands—a device used later at the climaxes of the fourth and fifth Sonatas.

The eight Études Op 42 bring us to 1903. Scriabin was by now an established composer with two symphonies to his credit, and as a pianist was a respected interpreter of his own music. Much was changing personally, philosophically and musically. In 1897 he had married the pianist Vera Ivanovna, but in 1902 Tatyana Schloezer became his pupil; a romance developed and in 1904 Scriabin and Tatyana travelled to Paris together. They married later despite Russian legal complications. Significantly, the Op 42 Études were the last of Scriabin’s piano music that Vera worked on with him.

Around 1900 Scriabin joined the circle around the Moscow philosopher Prince Trubetskoy; the climate in this group tended towards the mystical and apocalyptic. Scriabin also read Nietzsche and later became involved with theosophy. These trends of thought, together with a pampered early upbringing by a devoted aunt, led to an increasingly solipsistic world-view,summed up later in Scriabin’s exclamation to the composer Liadov: ‘I am the creator of new worlds. I am God!’

The Etudes of Op 42 are firmly rooted in tonality but frequently carry chromaticism and metrical complexity to extremes. No 1 is written in a restless cross-rhythm of nine against five; further, the right hand’s melodic groupings go across the bar lines in carefully asymmetrical units of 3, 4, 5 and 6 (later, 5 and 4). Speed, lightness, mobility and ceaseless fluid motion again create the sensation of exhilarating flight.

No 2 exploits Scriabin’s favourite five against three, but here the left-hand figures are shifted across the beats as in Op 8 No 7, giving a feeling of underlying disquiet. This surfaces in the final bars where both hands, as Chopin said of the finale of his B flat minor Sonata which this passage seems to recall, ‘chatter in unison’.

No 3 is a superlative trill study; its ethereal register and chromatic fleetness have earned it the apt Russian nickame of ‘The Mosquito’. Its F sharp major tonality is shared by No 4, an idyllic love song (for Tatyana?).

In violent contrast is No 5, eloquently marked ‘Affanato’—breathless and anxious. This atmosphere is created by a restless, dense texture and a harmonic language in which nearly every chord is darkened and destabilized by the addition of a seventh. An aspiring second subject, one of Scriabin’s finest melodic inspirations, affords some relief from the grip of nightmare.

‘Esaltato’—‘elated’—is the marking of No 6, hinting perhaps at Scriabin’s Nietzschean aspirations; the melodic gestures are imperious, and underlying exhilaration is conveyed not only by constantly swirling cross-rhythms but also by delaying the arrival of the tonic harmony for sixteen bars. This signals an increasing tendency in Scriabin’s music: in its final phase, from 1911 on, tonality became a background element, obliquely referred to but rarely overtly stated. Liszt had hinted at this possibility in the Bagatelle sans tonalité back in 1885, but Scriabin could not have known the piece; it remained unpublished until 1956.

The Brahmsian sixths and rhythmic devices of No 7 are comparatively conservative; this may be the Étude mentioned in a letter of 1899 from the composer to his publisher Belaiev. No 8 shares the first study’s aerial quality, but here the shifting of both hands’ figures across the beat (again in cross-rhythms) creates a weightless, wind-borne impression. By contrast, the central section is solidly grandiose, like that of Op 8 No 7, but its much more advanced harmonic language has a strong foretaste of Scriabin’s next major work, The Divine Poem.

The two brief Études Op 49 No 1 and Op 56 No 4 date from 1905 and 1908 respectively, a period which leads through the completion of The Divine Poem to a very different orchestral masterpiece, The Poem of Ecstasy. Scriabin wrote many sets of short pieces for piano; these chart his development and sometimes inaugurated a new phase in his music. However, the three pieces of Op 49 led to a temporary break with the Belaiev publishing house: the firm refused to pay more than fifty roubles each for such short works, while the composer, short of cash, demanded double that sum.

Op 49 No 1 has a curious hopping gait, as if about to leave the ground—a later, abandoned project was a symphonic poem, Icarus—and its swiftly moving tonal centres and tritonal bass steps mark a further shift towards the late style. Op 56 No 4 was published by Belaiev along with the Poem of Ecstasy, and its fleet melodic line and skipping rhythms have much in common with the orchestral work’s ‘allegro volando’ section. It anticipates the vertiginously whirling dances which conclude the sixth and eighth Sonatas. Significantly, the clarity of the final cadence is clouded by a mixture of tonic and dominant harmonies.

With the three Études Op 65 (1911–12) we definitively enter the final stage of Scriabin’s composing career. The last orchestral work, Prometheus (with piano, organ and choir) had been completed: it included a part for a ‘keyboard of lights’ which was to project changing colours into the auditorium. This synaesthetic concept led to the unfinished multi-media project which was to occupy Scriabin’s thought in his final years, the ‘Mysterium’, intended to bring about a world spiritual revolution. Ironically, the general tendency in his music at this time was towards ever-increasing concentration and conciseness.

A letter of 1912 anticipates with glee the scandal to be caused by the publication of Études based on the ‘horrifying … perverse … sacrilegious’ intervals of ninths, sevenths and fifths. The sonorities created here are among Scriabin’s most original and visionary. He himself was not able to perform the extremely difficult Op 65 No 1—his hands were too small to span the ninths, which, moreover, have to be played quickly and pianissimo. The effect is uncanny and ghostly. No 2, in major sevenths, deals with the most dissonant of the three intervals but, paradoxically, is the most overtly sensuous and languorous of the Études. Barcarolle-like rocking alternates with agitated volando flutterings like those of a captive bird. No 3, in fifths, is a dialogue: an ethereal, scintillating dance is repeatedly interrupted by powerful, imperious and hieratic gestures akin to those which open the seventh Sonata (headed ‘Prophétique’ in the manuscript), composed at the same period.

Scriabin was still to compose the final three Sonatas and some astonishing late pieces. But his impossible vision of spiritual apocalypse through music was brutally shattered by death from septicaemia. A merciful release, perhaps, from increasing egocentricity bordering on mania and from the real-life upheavals of war and revolution. However, the relationship between an artist’s life and work is complex and problematic. The focus, concentration, exquisite colours and textures and sheer emotional charge of the music, undiminished from one end of the century to the other, belie the delusions of the man.

Simon Nicholls © 1992

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