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.
from notes by Simon Nicholls © 1996