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Hyperion Records

CDH55286 - Scriabin: The Early Scriabin
(Originally issued on CDA67149)

Recording details: April 2000
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Martin Compton
Engineered by Tony Faulkner
Release date: May 2007
Total duration: 72 minutes 43 seconds

'A programme of fascinating rarities played with a touching sensitivity and affection … this record is a most impressive achievement, as beautiful in sound as it is endlessly thought-provoking' (Gramophone)

'This is remarkably attractive music. Warmly recommended' (Fanfare, USA)

The Early Scriabin
Movement 1: i  [7'46]
Movement 2: ii  [6'06]
Movement 3: iii  [4'40]
No 2: A major  [2'22]

Lovers of Scriabin's exotic, perfumed piano music, can not be without this disc. It conveniently collects all of Scriabin's early piano works that don't form part of a larger genre group (such as the complete preludes, already available on CDA67157/8, the complete études, CDA66607, or the complete sonatas, CDA67131/2). The largest work is, in fact, a piano sonata, but one that Scriabin abandoned as his musical language was developing so rapidly. He reworked the first movement to form the Allegro appassionato Op 4, and much of the rest of the work was lost for many years. It re-surfaced in 1970, and here it is played in a completion by Stephen Coombs himself. There are also attractive juvenile miniatures, and more mature works such as the two pieces for the left hand Op 9, and two Nocturnes Op 5; and, fascinatingly, an early version of the well-known Étude in D sharp minor Op 8 No 12 (the virtuoso work made famous by Horowitz and others).

Stephen Coombs has already shown himself to be a stylish advocate of neglected Russian repertoire, and here he brings all his musicianship and idiomatic affinity to create an inspiring and illuminating disc. This is a must for those interested in the development of the uniquely individual composer. It goes some way to providing an answer to Stravinsky's exclamation: "Scriabin … where does he come from; and who are his forebears?".

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Alexander Nikolaievich Scriabin was born in 1872 into a world shaped from the very outset to indulge and stimulate him. His mother, a concert pianist and former student of Leschetizky, died when he was just fifteen months old. His father entered the consular service shortly afterwards and was sent to various posts in Crete and Turkey, leaving his baby in the care of his parents. His father was to marry again in 1880 but as Consul-General at Erzurum he was only allowed a mere four months’ leave every three years to return home. So it was that little Alexander’s childhood came under the protection of his grandmother (his grandfather, the aristocratic Colonel Alexander Scriabin died when the boy was eight) and his aunt Lyubov, two women who adored him fanatically.

Scriabin was ten before any serious education, either musical or general, started. The young Sasha (the Russian diminutive for Alexander) declared his wish to enter the Second Moscow Cadet Corps instead of civil school. This surprising request was probably prompted by the strong military background in the Scriabin family (all his uncles were in the army). In 1882, the pale little boy enrolled at the Cadet Corps where, just as at home, he was pampered and indulged. One of his uncles was on the tutorial staff and instead of sharing quarters with the other cadets, he lived at his uncle’s official residence. Academically he was consistently at the head of his class and in the summer of 1883 he finally received his first formal music lessons.

Georgy Konyus, a pupil of Paul Pabst, was a friend of the Scriabin ladies and although only twenty-one years old he began teaching Sasha the piano. Konyus later recalled his first impressions: ‘What a puny little boy! Pale, short, looking younger than his years … He learned things quickly but, probably owing to his weak physique, his playing was always ethereal and monotonous’. Konyus gave the boy Cramer studies, some of Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words and easy Chopin to study. Evidence of Scriabin’s ready ability to learn can be seen in his earliest surviving composition, the Canon in D minor (1883). Already there is a languid, almost sensual quality to the music—a characteristic that would be developed further in the future. In the spring of 1884, however, the lessons came to an end. Sasha had contracted an illness which nearly killed him, and during his convalescence he wrote a Nocturne in A flat major (1884). Echoing the nocturnes of John Field, this early piece also shows the influence Chopin was to have on Scriabin. At one point the music clearly suggests Chopin’s Étude Op 10 No 11, a piece that Sasha may indeed have been studying at the time. Scriabin was by now, and for many years afterwards, in love with Chopin’s music.

1884 was an important year for the young cadet. He realized what everyone else had probably always known, that a life in the army was not for him. There was no possibility of being allowed to leave the Cadet Corp prematurely, however, and he remained at the Cadet School until 1889. In the meantime he was helped by Sergei Taneyev who taught him the essentials of composition and advised him to study piano with Nikolai Zverev, the most fashionable teacher in Moscow. Autocratic, irritable, but also kind-hearted and generous, Zverev would allow two or three of his best students to live with him, feeding, clothing and teaching them for nothing. Once again Scriabin (or ‘Scriabushka’ as his teacher now affectionately called him) found himself in a privileged position. Although still living at the Cadet Corps and therefore unable to be part of his teacher’s inner circle, he did become a favourite pupil. Every Sunday evening, Zverev would entertain Moscow’s leading intellectuals at his home (where his food was as famous as his students). The young Scriabin was regularly invited to entertain at these gatherings where he played not only difficult works such as Schumann’s ‘Paganini’ Studies but also his own compositions. At least five (probably seven) works from this period survive, three of them waltzes.

The Valse in F minor Op 1 (1885) is one of several sets of pieces published by Jurgenson in 1893—the others being Opp 2, 3, 5 and 7. By the time it was published, Scriabin had three delightful waltzes completed, the other two being the Valse in G sharp minor (1886) and Valse in D flat major (1886). Why all three were not published together as his Opus 1 is unclear. An inscription in his own hand at the top of the manuscript of the Waltz in G sharp minor reads: ‘Valse (en sol # mineur) Op 6 No 1’. Unfortunately, the original manuscript for his Waltz in D flat major has been lost (though two copies made by friends of Scriabin survive), but it would be reasonable to assume that the composer intended it to be his ‘Op 6 No 2’. All three waltzes are perfect examples of late nineteenth-century salon music. Charming and graceful, it is easy to forget that they were written when Scriabin was only thirteen or fourteen. They also show how much progress he had made as a composer in such a short time, for behind their apparent conventionality there are hints of developments to come. Together with a casual virtuosity (wide leaps and stretches) there is a loosening of rhythmic constraint (cross-rhythms of eight against three, for instance) and, at one point, the interpolation of an unexpected, but totally convincing, 2/4 bar.

There are two other dance pieces that would seem to be contemporary with the waltzes, though they have yet to be dated definitively—the Mazurka in F major and Mazurka in B minor. The musical language and style of both pieces point to a date around 1886. While these earlier mazurkas may not have the darker sophistication of his Mazurkas Op 3 (1889), they certainly bring to mind scenes at the Cadet School where Scriabin’s fellow cadets would compel him to play improvised waltzes and polkas for them to dance to.

Compared to the two mazurkas, the Sonate-fantaisie (1886) is far more ambitious. It is dedicated to Scriabin’s first sweetheart, Natalya Sekerina, whose romantic linkage to Scriabin was only revealed by the discovery in 1922 of his love-letters to her. The emotionally charged opening is remarkable for a fourteen-year-old but Scriabin’s eroticism had early roots. He later told Sabaneyev, his biographer, that at the age of nine he was ‘in love in the full sense of the word’. Alongside the increased emotional sophistication, there is also a transformation in the piano-writing. Scriabin seems to be stretching, quite literally, the physical demands on the performer. Massive chords involving stretches of up to a twelfth, together with single-hand scale passages in tenths are used with a casual indifference to their physical demands. Though Scriabin’s hands were said to have been able to stretch only an octave (even accounting for exaggeration, it is undeniable that he had small hands), his use of rubato and mastery of the sustaining pedal, widely admired and commented upon, provided a means to compensate for this disadvantage. With this Sonate-fantaisie Scriabin seems to be proving that his small hands are of no disadvantage to him and at the same time challenging other performers to match him. It is also worth remembering that Scriabin’s chief rival at this time, and later at the Moscow Conservatory, was Sergei Rachmaninov, whose hands were as famously large as Scriabin’s were small—though this early rivalry seems not to have affected their future friendship.

The Variations on a theme by Mlle Egorova (1887) have a more conventionally Russian flavour than the Sonate-fantaisie. No one is quite sure who Mlle Egorova was; however, the theme certainly has charm, and the resulting variations could almost have come from the pen of Liadov except that, in contrast to Liadov’s painstaking and considered approach to composition, these variations give us the impression that they were finished in a rather hasty fashion. Scriabin’s first two variations imply that he is planning a more extended work. What we get, however, are merely three variations (though very fine ones) followed by a brief reminder of the theme itself and a coda. This feeling of premature completion is supported by the absence of dynamic markings (except for an opening piano and a fortissimo near the end) and missing octave indications in the manuscript. There is also the tantalizing survival of a second manuscript containing only the theme and one variation, which might have suggested a planned revision.

In January 1888 Scriabin entered the Moscow Conservatory. As in childhood and later at the Cadet Corps, Scriabin found himself at the centre of considerable pampering. Taneyev, who had given Scriabin his first informal composition lessons two years earlier, was Director of the Conservatory and Scriabin continued to study counterpoint with him. His new piano teacher was Safonov, who was delighted with Scriabin’s playing, declaring that ‘he made the instrument breathe’. He was particularly impressed by his student’s mastery of the sustaining pedal, and ‘Sasha-like pedalling’ became a term of highest praise.

Scriabin’s steadily growing confidence can be seen in his Sonata in E flat minor. Written during the period 1887–9, the sonata is a major achievement and deserves to be more widely known. The first movement, indeed, will be familiar to many listeners as an earlier version of the Allegro appassionato Op 4. Although superficially similar, the two versions contain remarkably few identical bars. The Allegro appassionato is generally more pianistic, and contains a considerably larger number of notes. The biggest difference, however, is structural. Scriabin virtually obliterates the textbook first-movement sonata form of the original by extending the second subject, omitting the repeat of the exposition, and extensively rewriting the development section which is later repeated in a more virtuosic guise before the final coda.

The nature of Scriabin’s revision of the first movement gives us a clue as to the reasons why this sonata has remained neglected for so long. Scriabin’s relentless musical development suggests that by 1892 (when the revision was made) he was no longer interested in conventional classical forms. With its publication as the Allegro appassionato in 1894, the original sonata manuscript was forgotten. It did not see the light of day again until 1918 when Scriabin’s student Elena Bekman-Scerbina gave what may well have been its public premiere. By then the final page of the slow movement had been torn off and lost. With Scriabin dead, it was left to the performer (or possibly Leonid Sabaneyev) to reconstruct the missing page and since then even this version has been lost. The manuscript, now in two parts, was finally deposited in the Scriabin State Museum, where it languished until the third movement was published in 1947. Unaware that it had been separated from the other two movements, it was at first mistakenly identified as a Presto that Scriabin had performed in his debut recital at St Petersburg in 1895. (In fact, that Presto was in G sharp minor, as stated in the programme, and would later reappear as part of his Sonate-fantaisie Op 19.) All three movements finally appeared in print in 1970, in a volume titled Alexander and Julian Scriabin: Youthful and Early Works (Music Treasure Publications, New York). The autographs of all three movements are devoid of movement titles, dynamic- or tempo-markings. There are also missing time signatures, accidentals and, most unfortunately, the last page of the second movement breaks off less than two bars into the final statement of the opening theme. Luckily we have the first five beats of this final statement, which show us how Scriabin intended the theme to be embellished. By continuing Scriabin’s previous scheme within the movement, while extending the elaboration suggested by the composer, we find that a simple modulation is all that is required to effect a transition into the last movement. This also avoids the need to ‘invent’ any new musical material.

Considering Scriabin’s long-standing ‘love affair’ with Chopin’s music, it is surprising that he should have written so few nocturnes. Indeed, the Two Nocturnes Op 5, written in 1890, have only the faintest suggestion of reflective ‘night music’ and could as easily have been titled ‘impromptus’ or ‘poems’. Both pieces display an increased sensuousness and rhythmic freedom together with a more confident and daring use of harmony. Scriabin would write only one other nocturne, the second of his Two Pieces for Left Hand Op 9 (his later Poème-nocturne Op 61 being far more ‘poème’ than ‘nocturne’). Both works for left hand were written as a consequence of a nearly disastrous injury to his right hand. Having always been the darling of his teachers and relatives, Scriabin found himself by 1891 with stiff competition. His fellow students at the Moscow Conservatory included Rachmaninov, Josef Hofmann and Josef Lhévinne and due to over-practice of Balakirev’s Islamey and Liszt’s Réminiscences de Don Juan, Scriabin temporarily lost the full use of his right hand. Both the Prelude and the Nocturne are lovely works, and despite his setback Scriabin still seems intent on proving his ability as a pianist by turning the Nocturne in particular into a technical tour de force.

Simultaneously with his piano studies Scriabin studied first counterpoint with Taneyev and later fugue with Anton Arensky. Again his classmate was Rachmaninov and again Scriabin found himself in trouble. Arensky was irritated by Scriabin, whom he considered arrogant, and in 1891 Scriabin failed his examination in Arensky’s class—Rachmaninov passed brilliantly. The Fugue in E minor (1891) dates from this time. Arensky had set Scriabin the task of completing ten fugues during the summer of 1891. Apparently only one was completed, probably the Fugue in E minor. Interestingly, this fugue has for many years featured as part of the standard teaching curriculum in Russia and has been required study for all fourth-year piano students.

In 1892 Scriabin left the Moscow Conservatory. He had won the second gold medal for piano (Rachmaninov gained the first) but had failed to graduate in composition. Widely regarded as a brilliant young pianist, he decided to embark on a career as a concert pianist. It is worth remembering that he enjoyed a successful career as a pianist throughout his life. Alfred Swan, the distinguished scholar of Russian music, remembered Scriabin’s playing in the final years of his life:

I can see him now gazing off over the piano as if in a visionary trance, playing first haltingly and even inaccurately, but gradually coming into his own and gaining an increasing hold over the audience. Audience reaction mounted to near-hysteria as he played, in his unparalleled way, his works, from the early nocturnes to the last post-Promethean works … When the announced programme was over, the crowds rushed towards the platform, gesticulating, applauding, and shouting the names of the pieces they wanted repeated. He smilingly continued playing, virtually giving a second concert. Only by putting the lights out could the management force the people to go home.

A year later, Scriabin was still living with his grandmother—she was eventually to outlive her grandson. Rachmaninov was his closest friend and, though fifteen months younger than Scriabin, already far better known as a composer. The turning point for Scriabin, however, came in 1894 when he gave his first recital in St Petersburg. Among the works he performed were his Études Op 8, still unpublished at the time. The publisher Belayev had already seen and admired the few early pieces published by Jurgenson the previous year. Having heard Scriabin’s recital in St Petersburg, Belayev was determined to publish his music in the future. The first works to appear in Belayev’s catalogue were the Allegro appassionato Op 4, the first Sonata Op 6, the Prelude and Nocturne for Left Hand Op 9 and the Études Op 8.

Shortly after sending his manuscript of the Études Op 8 to Belayev, Scriabin sent him a letter saying:

You have probably already received the Études. You will find among them a second version of the D sharp minor which I don’t want published just yet. Let it remain with you for a while because there is something about it that doesn’t satisfy me. Yes, truth to tell, this has all happened because of my fiddling with it.

In the end, it seems that Belayev decided to publish only the first version, though perhaps by revising it, Scriabin himself had had reservations about the original. The Étude in D sharp minor (an alternative, second version of Op 8 No 12) has a startling number of differences from the familiar first version. This new version is less predictable in its melodic and harmonic progressions, and has a darker, more brooding quality. Though we shall never know for sure which of the two versions Scriabin performed in his crucial 1894 recital in St Petersburg, it seems likely that this second version of the Étude was not publicly performed until 1969 when it was broadcast on American television by Anton Kuerti.

Stephen Coombs © 2001

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