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Hyperion Records

CDA67131/2 - Scriabin: Complete Piano Sonatas
Recording details: June 1995
All Saints' Church, East Finchley, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Tony Faulkner
Release date: March 1996
Total duration: 146 minutes 45 seconds


'He commands the four qualities that a Scriabin interpreter must have: a feverish intensity, a manic vision, a sovereign and fastidious command of the pedal, and a huge dynamic range' (Gramophone)

'Hamelin rises to the challenges of this music with complete mastery. But his is more than a purely technical triumph (though the effortless of his playing has to be heard to be believed)' (BBC Music Magazine)

'This is one of the most significant Scriabin recordings of recent years, as well as another triumph for Hamelin, who reveals as much affinity for this Russian mystic as he has for Alkan, Godowsky, Ives, and Bolcom on earlier discs … Two more favorable elements must be noted: Hyperion's spacious and vivid recorded sound, and a really superb set of booklet notes by Simon Nicholls' (American Record Guide)

'Hamelin's playing enthralls the ear with its rounded, never-ugly tone, flickering fingerwork, and thunderous power. A sensational issue in every sense' (Classic FM Magazine)

'Hamelin's playing has superb authority and presence, and when required the greatest delicacy too. His amazing technical skill is completely at the service of the music. This is a major release' (Classic CD)

'Hamelin's revelatory cycle of the Scriabin sonatas takes top honors rather easily … a vein that's rarely been mined—and never with such virtuoso perfection. The more you think you know about these scores, the more striking you're liable to find this set' (Fanfare, USA)

'Marc-André Hamelin is the most important interpreter of Scriabin's music to have come along in decades' (Clavier)

'Il a les doigts et la sensibilité, la clairvoyance aussi, qui lui permettent de trouver un lyrisme généreux' (Le Monde de la Musique, France)

Complete Piano Sonatas
[crotchet = 40]  [4'55]
Presto  [2'58]
Funèbre  [5'34]
Andante  [8'41]
Presto  [3'38]
Drammatico  [6'49]
Allegretto  [2'28]
Andante  [4'38]
Presto con fuoco  [5'36]
Andante  [3'30]

Both as composer and virtuoso pianist, Scriabin was heir to the Classical and Romantic sonata tradition, but the transformation of this musical language in his own works was to be crucial for the survival of the sonata principle into the twentieth century.

This set includes all ten of the 'mature' Sonatas, the Fantaisie, Op 28, and the youthful Sonate-fantaisie. This last, published only after the composer's death, shows an astonishingly sure hand developing in the fourteen-year-old.

Other recommended albums
'Schubert: Piano Sonata D960' (CDA66004)
Schubert: Piano Sonata D960

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Scriabin is a composer of many paradoxes: an unusually small man of delicate health and physique who saw himself as a Titan, a heaven-defying Prometheus who would bring mankind to a new stage of spiritual evolution; an individualist who tended to associate himself with older, authoritative male figures such as his piano professor Safonov and his publisher Belaiev; a writer of five symphonies and ten sonatas who considered it futile only to write music in the Classical forms; a cosmopolitan who spent much of his adult life abroad and avoided using folk material in his compositions, but bridled if the Russian character of his music was called into question; a composer whose sonatas respect to the last the ground-plan of traditional sonata form but whose harmonic language, as it evolved, tended to dissolve the dynamic relations of the tonal system by which the sonata principle had lived.

Scriabin’s first sonata was written at the age of fourteen, while he was at the Cadet Corps in Moscow; the last three were composed in 1913 on a Russian country estate. Both as composer and virtuoso pianist, Scriabin was heir to the Classical and Romantic sonata tradition, and the transformation of musical language in his own works was important for the survival of the sonata principle into the twentieth century. Prokofiev was an admirer from his youth: ‘My fingers ache from playing Scriabin’, he wrote to his friend and fellow student Vera Alpers in 1909, and Stravinsky, who visited Scriabin in Switzerland in 1913, was ‘enormously pleased’ when the older composer gave him a private performance of his ‘latest sonatas’.

Scriabin was unwilling to admit the influence of any composer on his own music: he told Stravinsky that the F minor Fantasy of Schubert (which might have interested him as a complex single-movement structure) was ‘la musique pour les jeunes demoiselles’. But we know that Scriabin’s graduation recital at the Moscow Conservatoire in 1892 included Beethoven’s Op 109—an interesting choice and surely unusual in that time and place. The twenty-year-old composer must have responded strongly to the final variation of the last movement with its vibrant trills in bass and treble and its blazing figuration. Trills increasingly pervade Scriabin’s later music: Faubion Bowers quotes him as saying that they represent for him, ‘palpitation … trembling … the vibration in the atmosphere’, and a source of light. Scriabin must also have appreciated the return of the variation theme at the end of the movement (something which may hark back to Bach’s ‘Goldberg’ Variations): this feeling of ‘in my beginning is my end’ is hinted at in the early G sharp minor Sonate-Fantaisie and the first movement of Sonata No 2 (in the same key and also entitled Sonata-Fantasy) and is a feature of the Fifth, Ninth and Tenth Sonatas.

As a student, Scriabin had set himself the task of memorizing the Beethoven sonatas, though he lost interest after Op 14 No 2. Heinrich Neuhaus, the great Russian teacher whose pupils included Gilels and Richter, testifies that the ‘Pastorale’ Sonata Op 28 was a favourite. In the First and Third Sonatas, as well as the unfinished youthful E flat minor Sonata (written 1887–9: not recorded here—its first movement was published as the Allegro Appassionato, Op 4), Scriabin follows the multi-movement tradition inherited from Beethoven, Schumann and Chopin.

Beethoven’s sonatas include several which consist of two closely linked movements. This pattern is followed in Scriabin’s youthful G sharp minor Sonata (1886), his Second Sonata, Op 19, and his Fourth, Op 30—written in 1903, the first of the sonatas to be written in the twentieth century. This piece marks a new trend: the initial slow section is felt as an introduction to the following Allegro (as it is already in the 1886 Sonate-Fantaisie and, to a certain extent, in Op 19) and, from the Fifth Sonata onwards, the sections merge into a single movement. Here Scriabin is following the radical rethinking of the sonata by Liszt in the B minor Sonata of 1852/3 and, perhaps even more closely, the ‘Dante’ sonata (Liszt’s title was ‘Fantasia quasi sonata’), completed in 1849. Scriabin must have loved its opening bars, consisting of augmented fourths (the old theorists’ diabolus in musica)—this interval became an essential building-block in his own later music. In both these works traditional sonata form is overlaid by a ‘psychological’ progression and the return of thematic material in the recapitulation is concealed by the variation, metamorphosis or transformation of themes. This process is not so far from the Austro-German tradition as some commentators have asserted: Liszt learned much from Schubert, whose ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy he transcribed for piano and orchestra. Could Scriabin’s disparaging remark to Stravinsky about the F minor Fantasy have been made during a discussion of one-movement works after Scriabin’s playing of his ‘latest sonatas’?

Gyorgy Konyus, Scriabin’s first professional teacher of piano and composition, taught him a respect for form and proportion which lasted throughout his life. Alexander Pasternak, brother of the poet and novelist Boris, recalled a discussion between Scriabin and a Moscow professor of architecture about Palladian theories of proportion. While composing the Seventh Sonata, Scriabin was stuck for two bars which he needed to complete what he regarded as a perfect, ‘crystalline’ form.

Under Konyus, Scriabin composed a remarkable Canon in D minor. The contrapuntal habit stayed with him throughout his life: the finale of the Third Sonata contains some chromatic stretti (overlapping entries of voices playing the same music) which remind one of César Franck; the opening idea of the Ninth is in strict canon. The texture of the late sonatas is characterized by multiple layers and a ceaseless flux of combining and metamorphosing thematic material.

Critical as he was of Scriabin’s music, Stravinsky granted him great contrapuntal ability, which he attributed to training with Sergei Taneiev (1856–1915), an ascetic personality whose greatest passion was counterpoint—his devotion to the subject bore fruit in a thousand-page treatise which appeared in 1908. It might seem that these didactic personalities were foreign to Scriabin’s deeply romantic and essentially spontaneous and improvisatory way of music-making, and he has been criticized for clinging throughout his career to regular four-bar phrases and the outward procedures of ‘sonata form’; but it is arguable that these were exactly what he needed to give shape to his ideas. Scriabin was characteristically contradictory and slippery on the subject: announcing to Taneiev and the pianist Goldenweiser that he composed ‘strictly according to “law”’, he made an appointment at which he was to explain his theories of composition, but shirked the explanation because of a ‘headache’. On another occasion, he stated to the critic Sabaneiev: ‘I find my sound combinations and harmonies in a purely intuitive way … it pleases me if theoretical principles agree with my intuition and, in the last analysis, this is inevitable in any case’—a characteristically self-assured assertion. Alexander Pasternak’s description of overhearing Scriabin in his dacha composing ‘The Divine Poem’ in 1903 is of improvisatory, fragmentary work at the piano. In an eloquent letter to his second wife, Tatyana Schloezer, written in 1906 or 1907, around the time of the composition of the Fifth Sonata, he writes (Faubion Bowers’s translation): ‘Again I am swept by an enormous wave of creativity. I choke for breath, but oh what bliss! I am composing divinely …’ All the sensual Romanticism of the man is in these words—and, perhaps, all the egoism too.

The earliest work on these discs is the Sonate-Fantaisie in G sharp minor (1886), a work which Scriabin never published. He wrote it at the age of fourteen and dedicated it to Natalya Sekerina, the sweetheart of his adolescence. The Sonata shows an astonishingly sure hand in the natural progression of one idea from another. A portentous introduction leads to a gentle, idyllic first movement highly reminiscent of Chopin in its flow of florid melody. This was the time in Scriabin’s life when he fell in love with Chopin’s music and would go to sleep with a volume of Chopin under his pillow. The opening Andante gives way to a rather more agitated sonata movement. The cadence theme, especially in its return where it is accompanied by simple chords rather than flowing accompaniment figures, has a touch of the mazurka about it—Scriabin wrote twenty-one mazurkas and three impromptus à la mazur between 1887 and 1903. The development section, with its broken tenths in the left hand and the polyphony in the treble, is most original and characteristic in its sonorities. The end artfully and subtly introduces a reminiscence, not of the opening bars, but of an ensuing idea from the introduction. Its chromaticism is also highly characteristic, and it is not surprising that it was this idea that the young composer chose to bring back.

The Sonate-Fantaisie had been written while Scriabin was studying with Nikolai Zverev, a formidable pedagogue who had himself studied with Henselt (whose pattes de velours were praised by Liszt) and Alexandre Dubuque, a pupil of John Field. A classmate was Sergei Rachmaninov. Seven years passed before Scriabin completed another sonata, which was published as the Sonata No 1 in F minor, Op 6 (1893). Work on it was finished in the summer of 1892, after his graduation recital. This was the time of what Scriabin described in a personal notebook as his ‘first real defeat in life’. Arensky had refused to pass Scriabin’s compositions, so that he was obliged to accept the ‘Little Gold Medal’ of the Conservatoire for piano-playing only, rather than the ‘Great Gold Medal’ which had been awarded to Rachmaninov. Far more devastating, however, was the event to which the notebook directly refers: desperate to emulate the virtuosity of another classmate, Joseph Lhevinne, Scriabin had brought on what we would now call ‘repetitive strain injury’ in his right arm and hand. Doctors assured him that recovery was impossible, and the result was an inner crisis: the notebook refers to self-analysis, doubt, fervent prayer, but at the same time to the composition of the First Sonata as a cry ‘against fate, against God’. This cry is eloquently heard in the opening bars—significantly, led by the left hand. Keyboard style has become deliberately massive: the expansion of musical ideas across the keyboard and the chordal writing feel under the fingers like playing early Brahms.

The second movement depicts the doubts and prayers of Scriabin’s notebook. The language here, appropriately, is close to César Franck. The first sixteen bars, which return at the end of the movement, are a prayer; personal confession comes with the more florid middle section with its ‘weeping’ falling chromaticisms.

The third movement sounds like a finale; it remains incomplete, however, and after a dramatic break leads into a funeral march—a memorable inspiration and, with its bass tied to a two-note ostinato, extremely Russian, on a line which leads from Mussorgsky’s ‘Bydlo’ (from Pictures at an Exhibition) to the slow movement of Prokofiev’s Second Sonata. Twice the inexorable march is interrupted by a chordal passage described by Scriabin’s first English biographer, Arthur Eaglefield Hull, as ‘an angelic song’; but those angels are a million miles away: the chords are marked ‘quasi niente’—almost inaudible—and the song leads nowhere. In the context of the Sonata’s late-Romantic language the bare fifth of the final cry is startlingly brutal—a rejection, perhaps, of the comfort of traditional solutions.

Scriabin gave only one complete performance of this Sonata; perhaps its associations were too painful. But he may, also, have been conscious that the work’s reflection of experience is raw and unassimilated. The ‘dim religious light’ of the second movement gives little relief from the sombre mood of the others and there is more than a hint of self-pity and self-dramatisation about the whole piece. Perhaps it was this that led Aldous Huxley, in Antic Hay, to describe Scriabin as ‘the Tchaikovsky de nos jours’, a put-down which can easily be read as a compliment. Like Tchaikovsky, Scriabin is a master of his craft; and Hugh Macdonald has pointed out that the despairing finale of Scriabin’s First Sonata precedes Tchaikovsky’s ‘Pathétique’ by a year.

The Sonata No 2 in G sharp minor, Op 19 (1892–7), takes its inspiration from nature: the sea, which Scriabin first experienced on a trip to Latvia in 1892. A visit to Genoa in 1895 may have been a further stimulus, but the Sonata was not finished until another turning point in Scriabin’s life had been reached: his marriage to the pianist Vera Isacova in 1897. Their honeymoon took place in the Crimea, on the shores of the Black Sea. The composer wrote a short ‘programme’:

The first part evokes the calm of a night by the seashore in the South; in the development we hear the sombre agitation of the depths. The section in E major represents the tender moonlight which comes after the first dark of the night. The second movement, presto, shows the stormy agitation of the vast expanse of ocean.

This does not represent a turning away from personal emotion: the sea is an ancient symbol for the psyche, and the Sonata represents an early example of Scriabin’s later tendency to equate the phenomena around him with his own interior life. The piano writing has done away with the bombast of the First Sonata and returned to the delicacy and filigree of its youthful predecessor. The brooding opening makes use of a motive, rhythmically the reverse of that in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which dominates the movement. At the move to B major the music has a subtlety and spontaneity of rhythmic articulation rarely heard before in Scriabin’s music, and the second subject is one of Scriabin’s happiest inspirations, a soaring melody placed in the middle of the texture, with glittering figuration around it like sunlight or moonlight playing on dancing waves. Scriabin saw colours when he heard music and erected an elaborate synaesthetic system on this basis. The key of E, in which this movement ends, an unusual departure from the norm for Scriabin, was to him bluish-white, the colour of moonlight.

The device of embedding the melody in the middle of an arpeggiated texture goes back to the virtuoso Sigismond Thalberg (1812–1871), whose speciality it was. Liszt, who played in competition with him in 1837, often made use of the device, most famously in the concert étude ‘Un Sospiro’. A favourite device of Scriabin, who liked to give the melodic line to his stronger left hand, it reappears in the slow movement of the Third Sonata, the end of the first movement of the Fourth, and in the Seventh and Tenth Sonatas. A further device used in the late style emerges in the Second Sonata’s opening movement: exposition, development and recapitulation all start with the same music. Not an unusual way of writing a sonata movement, but an essential aural signpost in the complex worlds of the Ninth and Tenth Sonatas. The initial motive also returns at the end of the movement, a feature of those works as well as of the Fifth.

The finale of the Second Sonata is a moto perpetuo; from this restless background emerges a heroically climbing, aspiring melody. Siegfried Schibli has pointed out that this theme is left incomplete until its final appearance near the end of the movement. Perhaps Scriabin had in mind the first movement of Beethoven’s ‘Appassionata’, where the second subject is treated in the same way. Characteristically, Scriabin was dilatory about taking the decision to send off the completed manuscript until practically ordered to by Belaiev, who had published the First Sonata in 1895. As a result, the metronome marks we see in the published score are not Scriabin’s, but were provided by Liadov.

The Sonata No 3, Op 23 (1897/8), was finished in the summer of 1898 on a country estate at Maidanovov, shortly before the beginning of Scriabin’s few years as piano professor at the Moscow Conservatoire. Teaching was by no means the central passion of the composer’s existence: a later appointment at the St Catherine’s Institute for girls ended in scandal with the seduction of a teenage pupil. Scriabin took up the Conservatoire appointment as a means towards financial security in his newly married state; he was recommended by his old professor Safonov and accepted the post on the advice of his more recently acquired mentor, Belaiev. Reminiscences by his pupils Margherita Morozova (who later supported him financially) and Maria Nemenova-Lunz, however, show him to have been a conscientious, imaginative and original teacher, covering repertoire from Bach to the contemporary music of the day and avoiding his own works. Pupils’ awareness of sound quality was constantly challenged: ‘This chord should sound like a joyous cry of victory, not a wardrobe toppling over!’ Rivals criticized the nervous instability of his pupils’ rhythm—something which can be heard on the piano rolls of Scriabin’s own playing. Like all great creative and recreative personalities, Scriabin must have been apt to inspire imitation in his pupils.

The Third Sonata is a large-scale, four-movement work. Within three years Scriabin was to complete his first two symphonies, and this Sonata is symphonic in its polyphony, long-sighted formal construction and thematic development, breadth of phrase and heroic, epic manner. Several years later a ‘programme’ was issued which should be treated with caution—some commentators have suggested that the writer was not Scriabin but his second wife, Tatyana Schloezer, who was even more inclined to cloudy verbiage than the composer—but is still worth looking at, as Scriabin certainly approved it:

States of Being
a) The free, untamed soul passionately throws itself into pain and struggle
b) The soul has found some kind of momentary, illusory peace; tired of suffering, it wishes to forget, to sing and blossom—despite everything. But the light rhythm and fragrant harmonies are but a veil, through which the uneasy, wounded soul shimmers
c) The soul floats on a sea of gentle emotion and melancholy: love, sorrow, indefinite wishes, indefinable thoughts of fragile, vague allure
d) In the uproar of the unfettered elements the soul struggles as if intoxicated. From the depths of Existence arises the mighty voice of the demigod, whose song of victory echoes triumphantly! But, too weak as yet, it fails, before reaching the summit, into the abyss of nothingness.

Heady stuff, or pretentious drivel, according to taste. Composers who issue programmes for their music often live to regret it—witness Berlioz and Richard Strauss. Mendelssohn’s reaction to all verbal attempts to describe the content of a piece of music—that words are far less definite than music and thus ‘ambitious, vague and … unsatisfying’—seems particularly appropriate here.

The thematic structure of the Third Sonata is particularly closely bound together, both in the relation of themes from all four movements to one another and in their ‘cyclic’ treatment, which harks back to Liszt and César Franck. The mood of the first movement is heroically assertive; the simultaneous combination of themes is prominent in the development—a habit which was to grow on the composer in his later music. The end of the movement is strikingly inconclusive, leading the listener on to the second movement. This takes the place of a scherzo and trio, whose form it shares, but is more like a curiously hasty and uneasy march. Its mixture of major and minor is reflected in the programme’s description of an illusory veil, and the beginning is marked to be played with soft pedal. The trio dallies exquisitely, playing with little triplet figures.

It is interesting that the ‘programme’ of the last two movements returns to the oceanic imagery of the Second Sonata. The beginning of the slow movement evokes a mood rare yet central to Scriabin’s music: a self-absorbed bliss, like that of a small child. After a middle section of disturbed, chromatically wandering inner parts, the first theme returns in Scriabin’s favourite scoring, surrounded above and below by a halo of sound. The pianist Mark Meichik, a Scriabin pupil who later gave the first performance of the Fifth Sonata, reported that the composer’s playing of this passage sounded ‘as if the left hand melody were accompanied by silvery tinklings or shimmerings’; and when Elena Beckman-Shcherbina played it to the composer, Scriabin called out: ‘Here the stars are singing!’

The ‘uproar of the elements’ in the finale is created by ceaseless, left-hand figuration and equally restless chromaticism in the melodic lines. One passage shortly before the respite offered by the first major-key episode is particularly disturbed in expression: the outer parts move towards each other chromatically. The effect is strikingly similar to parts of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, written the following year; both, of course, have a common source in the Wagner of Tristan. In the central episode, as mentioned earlier, Scriabin uses all his resources of counterpoint; rising by semitone steps, the build-up is truly symphonic, and the final restatement of the slow movement theme is an orchestral conception. Banality is avoided: our expectation of a ‘happy ending’ in the major key is frustrated and the work ends in defiance, remembering the rondo theme.

The Fantaisie in B minor, Op 28 (1900), is an interesting inclusion in this collection of sonatas: as a substantial single sonata-form movement it bridges the gap between the Third and Fourth Sonatas as the only piano piece of any length written during Scriabin’s professorship. A popular work with Russian pianists—Scriabin is central to the Russian repertoire—its existence was forgotten by the composer. When Sabaneiev started to play one of its themes on the piano in Scriabin’s Moscow flat (now a museum), Scriabin called out from the next room, ‘Who wrote that? It sounds familiar.’ ‘Your Fantasy’, was the response. ‘What Fantasy?’

The virtuosic style is close to that of the Third Sonata. The brooding opening gives way to one of Scriabin’s inspired, soaring and consoling second subjects whose flight is sustained for twenty-six bars. Noticeable here are the touches of canonic treatment. The third theme is close in its massive confidence and chromatic harmony to the world of ‘The Divine Poem’—the Third Symphony, finished in 1904. The recapitulation is hugely expanded and rescored, an early attempt to deal with something mentioned many years later by Scriabin’s brother-in-law Boris de Schloezer: ‘Neither musically nor psychologically can anything justify a near-literal repetition, which causes a painful drop in tension.’ Scriabin addressed the problem more successfully in his piano works than in the orchestral ‘Divine Poem’ and ‘Poem of Ecstasy’; the emotional line rides on through a long coda, a device used later in the Seventh Sonata. But as he moved into the middle and later periods of his music his means of variation were to become both more subtle and more drastic.

‘The artist feels his “heritage” as the grip of a very strong pair of pincers’, Stravinsky remarks in Memories and Commentaries (edited by Robert Craft). At the beginning of 1904 Scriabin was both a married family man with two daughters and a son and a master of late-Romantic composition, with three sonatas, three symphonies and a host of smaller pieces to his credit. He had given up the Moscow professorship to concentrate on composition. But within a crisis was brewing on two fronts. Philosophically and spiritually Scriabin was turning to the teachings of Nietzsche, the Russian philosopher Prince Trubetskoi and the ‘Secret Doctrine’ of the leading theosophist Madame Blavatsky. This was to lead later to a deep involvement with Eastern mysticism. Romantically he was becoming attached to Tatyana Schloezer, whose acquaintance he had made in 1898 when she was fifteen. The relationship developed when he became friendly with her brother Boris in 1902/3; by the summer of 1904 Scriabin and Tatyana were together in Switzerland and early in 1905 she bore him a daughter, Ariadna.

A fairly radical break had taken place with the moral code inculcated by the adoring maiden aunt who had pampered Scriabin’s youth (his mother was dead and his father abroad on diplomatic missions). Mitrofan Belaiev, outstanding patron of Russian composers, Scriabin’s publisher since 1894 and his stern, fatherly mentor in worldly matters, had died in December 1903. Corresponding to this upheaval in personal life is a transformation in musical language, shown clearly in the Sonata No 4, Op 30 (1903). For this work, too, Scriabin wrote a programme: a poem describing flight to a distant star. It reflects the startling new philosophies he was imbibing:

Thinly veiled in transparent cloud
A star shines softly, far and lonely.
How beautiful! The azure secret
Of its radiance beckons, lulls me …
Vehement desire, sensual, insane, sweet …
Now! Joyfully I fly upward toward you,
Freely I take wing.
Mad dance, godlike play …
I draw near in my longing …
Drink you in, sea of light, you light of my own self …

These excerpts give a flavour of Scriabin’s literary effusion, which hardly does justice to his music. It does, however, contain a number of motifs which recur in his mental world: light, colour, erotic desire, flight, dance, and the equation of the cosmos with the ego. The last-mentioned is close to the tat tvam asi—‘That art thou’—of Sanskrit teaching, the universal oneness of mystic experience in many cultures; with a personality as self-absorbed as Scriabin, however, it is possible to feel rather that he believes ‘All is myself!’—a rather different proposition.

The motives in the poem are those of a dream. These notes are not the place for psycho-analysis of the dead—a notoriously open field—but if the symbols in the poem illuminate the music, so much the better. Longing and desire are certainly to be heard in the first movement, with its close relation to the ‘Tristan’ prelude, but also something of that self-contained bliss found in the slow movement of the Third Sonata. Harmony here is suspended, unresolved and floating and texture spare and luminous: a new manner which must have startled the listeners of 1903. The return of the first theme, in Scriabin’s favourite ‘Thalberg’ scoring, reminds us of his remark about the Third Sonata, ‘Here the stars are singing!’, and suggests a consistency to his musical symbolism stretching back to the ‘moonlight’ of the Second Sonata.

The second movement, a sonata Allegro which follows without a break, brings more new sounds: a light, dancing and skipping, hovering style in breathless, irregular groups of chords. The motif of flight recurs throughout Scriabin’s work, from the early D flat étude, Op 8 No 10, onwards, but here it becomes explicit. Sabaneiev recalled Scriabin demanding of this movement: ‘I want it even faster, as fast as possible, on the verge of the possible … it must be a flight at the speed of light, straight towards the sun, into the sun!’ In the summer of 1903 the artist Leonid Pasternak, returning home after a short walk, told his family of an encounter with a gentleman who seemed to be quite sober but was perhaps a little touched in the head; he was bounding downhill with great springing strides and waving his arms like an eagle trying to take off. The eccentric gentleman was Scriabin, who became a friend of the family and the idol and mentor of the young Boris Pasternak.

The finale, with dominant harmonies succeeded by further dominants in an ever-widening perspective and the final jubilant return of the first movement theme above vibrant repeated chords, is unmistakably an explosion of overwhelming joy. Comparing it with the sombre finales of the first three sonatas, one is forcibly reminded of a sentence Scriabin wrote down a few years earlier: ‘To become an optimist in the true sense of the word, one must have been prey to despair and surmounted it.’

The Sonata No 5, Op 53, was written as an offshoot of the orchestral ‘Poem of Ecstasy’ in 1907; its composition took only three to four days. Once again Scriabin provided a text, a few lines from the poem written for the orchestral work:

I call you to life, mysterious forces!
Drowned in the obscure depths
of the creative spirit, timid
Embryos of life, to you I bring audacity!

—a vivid description of the release of material from the unconscious mind necessary for the creation of such a complex and innovative work in such a short space of time. Like the Fourth, the Fifth Sonata belongs to the middle period of Scriabin’s music where harmony relates directly and clearly to the tonal system, but many features point already to the final phase. The general plan is of a slow introduction followed by a sonata movement, but slow and fast sections alternate throughout. The piece begins and ends with a fantastical passage of sheer sonority, quite anti-tonal in effect (though, characteristically, based firmly on a mode): starting with subterranean rumblings it flashes rapidly through the range of the keyboard and vanishes, as it were, from sight. The elementally simple motives of the languid prologue artfully foreshadow the themes which are to emerge later. The dance of the ensuing Presto takes up where the Fourth Sonata left off, and there are clear programmatic references to the epigraph: imperious fanfares are ans­wered by distant, fearful shudderings. The third subject, in a slower tempo, is the closest to the atmosphere of the ‘Poem of Ecstasy’: marked ‘caressingly’, and taking chromaticism its furthest yet, it is steeped in sensuality.

At the centre of the piece, marked ‘with delight’, appears the so-called ‘Mystic’ or ‘Promethean’ harmony which was to become the basis of Scriabin’s late style. Mysterious and sophisticated in sonority, it has a simple origin as a chromatically altered dominant chord arranged in fourths instead of thirds.

At the recapitulation Scriabin introduces a new technique: the opening bars are brought back in miniature, speeded up and lightened so that we ‘fly’ through them. This does not prevent a final, ecstatic reprise of the prologue theme with Scriabin’s usual vibrating repeated chords—but, unlike earlier works, the theme is not in octaves but more luminously in single notes in the treble, another characteristic of the late style. The final bars, identical to the beginning, baffled Taneiev, who remarked that the Sonata did not finish but just stopped; this ending could also be thought of as a new beginning, suggesting repeated cycles of creation—Nietzsche’s ‘Eternal Recurrence’.

The Sonata No 6, Op 62, was written in the summer of 1911 after the completion of ‘Prometheus’. Scriabin never played it in public; he considered it ‘frightening … dark and mysterious, impure, dangerous’. There is no programme, but a surreal vision is implied in the exotic performance directions: ‘Expansion of mysterious forces … all becomes charm and sweetness … winged, swirling … the Terrifying One arises, she joins in the delirious dance.’ The musical language has moved into the late period: in the words of Scriabin’s opening directions, it is ‘mysterious, concentrated’—tonality has receded into the far background.

Chromatically altered harmonies, like the ‘Promethean’ chord introduced in the Fifth Sonata, are uncompromisingly used as stable consonances. The range of expression has correspondingly expanded into an area of other-worldly mystery: Scriabin, like Richard Strauss after the composition of Elektra a couple of years earlier, was alarmed by the possibilities he had opened up. A transformation of piano sonority has taken place, ranging from monolithic chordal writing at the beginning through weightless, fluttering airborne impulses to an arching theme of boundless sensuality, which is developed in a passage of extreme textural luxuriance with motives and themes mingling in a multi-layered perspective. The final dance, which takes the dances of the Fourth and Fifth Sonatas into a new dimension of febrile hyperactivity, exceeds the range of the keyboard with an unprecedented top D. An anchor for the listener is provided by clear elements of recapitulation, but structure is seamless and the whole gives the impression of following the inscrutable logic of a dream.

The Sonata No 7, Op 64 (‘White Mass’, 1911), was actually finished before No 6, to which it is the counterpart. Scriabin loved the work; its nickname was his own invention and he associated it with ‘mystical feeling … total absence of … emotional lyricism’. He depicted bells, clouds, perfume, a ‘fountain of fire’. The movement is headed ‘Prophétique’ in the manuscript, but Koussevitzky, who by this time had become Scriabin’s publisher, altered it to the somewhat more prosaic ‘Allegro’. A symbol, this, of the composer’s growing Messianic pretensions: his plan was to write a ‘Mystery’ involving every conceivable art and sensation which would bring mankind to a new stage of awareness. Koussevitzky, whose feet were firmly planted on the ground, was of the opinion that the composer and his friends would simply have a good dinner and then go home.

The Seventh Sonata is a work of thrilling sonorities: the fanfares and hieratic gestures of the opening are complemented by repeated chords which flicker like lightning, and solemnly chiming bells lead into the second theme associated with it, a powerful motive of invocation. Bells have been potent symbols for Russian composers from Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, through Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sadko to Rachmaninov’s choral setting of Poe. The contrasting second subject symbolizes an unworldly peace; it is associated with arpeggio figures which drift languidly like clouds of incense. The development is concerned mainly with alternations of the two principal themes but also introduces a new, ‘sparkling’ motive like a glimpse of distant light. At the lead-back to the recapitulation, where the first theme appears in the ‘Thalberg’ scoring with astonishing effect, bell-chimes and lightning flashes combine in a veritable storm of sonority. After the recapitulation, a second development, increasingly dominated by the new theme from the main development section, becomes a vertiginous dance, ‘the ultimate dance before the moment of dematerialisation’ according to the composer. The bells peal wildly, culminating in a huge chord extending over five octaves to the top note of the keyboard. The effect of this climactic multiple crossing of hands is like a rippling flash of blinding light. That Scriabin’s ‘dances’ had their own symbolism is shown by his interpretation of the final dissolving trills as images of ‘enervation’, ‘non-existence after the act of love’.

The last three sonatas were all written in 1912/3 on a country estate. The Sonata No 8, Op 66, was the last to be finished and is notable among the late works for its length and inward, meditative character—reflected in the rarity in the score of the emotionally charged performance directions of which the composer had become fond. Scriabin never performed the work himself, but spoke enthusiastically of it, and of the exquisite proportions of its form: he thought of his quasi-geometrical organizations as ‘bridges between the visible [the natural world] and the invisible [the conceptual, artistic realm]’. The opening chords he thought of as counterpoint, but a counterpoint where all the parts were ‘at perfect peace’. This may link with his view of the cosmos as ‘a system of correspondences’ and his desire to contemplate things ‘on the level of unity’. A letter to Tatyana Schloezer in 1905 had spoken of a desire to ‘explain the Universe in terms of free creativity’. Boris Asafiev associated the piece with ‘the physical world and the laws of energy’, and the themes are said by Sabaneiev to represent the elements. It is easy to hear the lightness and mobility of air in the recurring cascades of fourths, contrasting with the solidity of earth at the beginning, and a later development of the Allegro theme ebbs and flows like the waves of the sea. The luminous use of trills in this sonata is particularly ravishing. One theme stands out from the others: marked ‘tragique’, it climbs and aspires only to fall back exhausted. Scriabin was particularly taken with the change of mood from hope to despair within this melodic arch, and it is tempting to see in this musical idea, as Faubion Bowers has suggested, the phenomenon of individual consciousness—regarded by Scriabin as an ‘illusion’, but one necessary to the contrast required even in so sophisticated and modified a sonata form as this one. The interpenetration of themes is even more thorough-going than in the Seventh Sonata, and the work’s material is summed up in a final dance of increasing speed, complexity and immateriality where all seems to dissolve into its constituent atoms.

The Sonata No 9, Op 68 (‘Black Mass’), is perhaps the most famous of all Scriabin’s sonatas. Its title is the invention of Alexei Podgayetsky, a pianist, admirer, theosophist and companion. It certainly reflects the nature of the music: framed by bare, strictly imitative writing, the atmosphere is Satanic. The repeated notes marked ‘mystérieusement murmuré’ which answer the first, harshly dissonant climax distantly recall the ‘Mephistopheles’ motive in Liszt’s B minor sonata, and the technique by which the lyrical second subject appears in increasingly seductive guises and finally emerges as a grotesque march is a parody in the spirit of Berlioz’s ‘Songe d’une nuit du Sabbat’ in the Symphonie fantastique. A figure of crescendoing trills, which raises the tension, is like a conjuration. After a sensual but ‘poisonous’ (Scriabin’s description) interlude, where pleasure and pain seem to be inextricably mingled, every subsequent tempo marking is an increase in speed; the first idea is recapitulated with its figuration speeded up and spread widely over the keyboard, a breath-taking innovation which completely removes the traditional drop in tension associated with recapitulation to which Boris de Schloezer objected. After the carefully calculated peak of dissonance reached in the march, which the composer described as a ‘parade of the forces of evil’, the music breaks for a few bars into whirling fragmentation—writing just three years after the piece was composed, A E Hull coined the memorable phrase ‘molecular vertigo’. The return of the opening bars leaves us wondering where, or how, this vision or dream has vanished.

The Sonata No 10, Op 70, is perhaps one of Scriabin’s supreme achievements in its formal balance and concentration of expression. Here we are back in harmony with Nature: Scriabin described the work as ‘bright, joyful, earthly’ and spoke of the atmosphere of the woods: some commentators have heard bird calls in the opening bars. Perhaps there is an echo here of that late summer of 1913 at Petrovskoye, the country estate where, in a world soon to vanish in war and revolution, Scriabin put the finishing touches to his last sonatas. There are evocations, also, of insects, which Scriabin saw as manifestations of human emotion. The plan is, as before, a slow prologue followed by a sonata Allegro. The prelude is subdued and serene in tone but finishes with three ‘luminous, vibrant’ trills—a blazing vision of light and a sign of the structural importance of trills in this sonata.

As so often in Scriabin’s sonatas, great importance is given to the second subject, an upward-leaping theme marked ‘with joyous exaltation’ on its first appearance. Its recapitulation is one of the most extraordinary passages: the theme, once again in the middle of the texture, is accompanied by trills expanded into multiple clusters, an anticipation of the sonorities of Messiaen, evoking, according to the composer, ‘blinding light, as if the sun had come close’. The final dance in this sonata, where the material is drawn together into utmost compression, is a ‘trembling, winged’ one of insects; the final bars leave us in the peace of the forest.

Scriabin saw himself at this stage as on the brink of great new developments; ironically, as it turned out, he commented: ‘I must live as long as possible.’ He died, agonizingly, of blood-poisoning in 1915. His philosophical preoccupations prevented him from understanding the import of the outbreak of war in 1914: ‘The masses’, opined Scriabin, ‘need to be shaken up, in order to purify the human organization …’ Death, with an uncanny sense of timing, spared him the shake-up of the Russian Revolution. His interior world remains intact, a shared secret for all who wish to enter it.

Simon Nicholls © 1996

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