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Hyperion Records

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Halos (1894) by Louis Welden Hawkins (1849-1910)
Track(s) taken from CDH55450
Recording details: June 2000
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Amanda Hurton
Engineered by Tony Faulkner
Release date: February 2001
Total duration: 31 minutes 5 seconds

Vingt-quatre préludes, Op 11
1888/96; divided into four Parts of 6 Preludes each

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
The Twenty-Four Preludes Op 11 bear witness not only to Belaiev’s organisatory efforts but also to Scriabin’s nomadic existence of concert tours and protracted ‘cures’ from 1894 to 1896, when the majority of the preludes were composed. Perhaps remembering the importance of Majorca in the history of Chopin’s Preludes, Scriabin appends a date and place-name to each piece. The key-scheme is Chopin’s, ascending through the circle of fifths with each major key followed by its relative minor. Unlike Chopin, Scriabin subdivides his cycle into four parts of six preludes each: Part I (1888–96), Nos 1 to 6; Part II (1894–96), Nos 7 to 12; Part III (1895), Nos 13 to 18; and Part IV (1895–6), Nos 19 to 24.

Analysis of the preludes of Op 11 by date and place reveals how much juggling (and transposition?) took place to produce the existing order. No 4 was composed first, at the age of sixteen, in Moscow; one year later No 6 followed in Kiev; in 1893/4 Nos 1 and 10 followed, again in Moscow. No 14 was written in Dresden, Nos 3, 19 and 24 in Heidelberg, and 17, 18 and 23 in Witznau (a Swiss resort on the Lake of Lucerne) on the tour of 1895. Later that year a group was written in Moscow: 7, 13, 15, 20, 21; Nos 2, 9 and 16 are dated November of that year, a date which may refer to the composer’s approaching split with his first love, Natalya Sekerina.

Prelude No 1 in C (Moscow, November 1893) reflects a Chopinesque influence, but the bar-by-bar waves of Chopin’s first prelude here become longer, ‘undulating, caressing’ lines (Scriabin later suppressed this descriptive marking in favour of a simple ‘Vivace’). No 2 in A minor (Moscow, November 1895) is a melancholy, hesitant dance; No 3 in G (written the previous May on tour in Heidelberg) flutters incessantly with the sound of a summer breeze led by the right hand, whereas Chopin’s prelude in the same key gives this movement to the left. No 4 in E minor is given the marking ‘Moscow, Lefortovo, 1888’, but is in fact a reworking of a Ballade in B flat minor from the previous year. Scriabin appended a visionary poem to the Ballade:

Beautiful country;
And life is different here …
Here there is no place for me …
There, I hear voices,
I see a world of blessed souls …

The poem is prophetic of the intense inner world which Scriabin was to build for himself, and the ‘difference’ of that world is evoked by augmented harmonies – significant because of their tendency to suspend the ‘normal’ laws of tonality.

No 5 in D (Amsterdam, 1896) is an idyll, spun out on an endless thread of steadily moving left-hand quavers. Its variations on a simple recurring four-note ascent demand the most sensitive voicing and an improvisatory freedom of approach. The spell is broken by the closely imitating, rushing octaves of No 6 in B minor (Kiev, 1889 – was Scriabin visiting his uncle who lived here?). The mood is one of headlong, impulsive heroism – there may be a reminiscence here of No XIII in Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze in the same key.

No 7 in A (Moscow, 1895) represents a considerable advance in technical demands, with its three strands – arching melody, restless middle part and impetuous bass figures – all to be balanced in dynamics ranging from pp to ff and propelled along at a never-resting ‘Allegro assai’ (Scriabin was supplying metronome marks for his music at this period, a practice he abandoned in later life). The speedy metronome mark of No 8 in F sharp minor (Paris, 1896) was flatly ignored by Sergei Rachmaninov in his own performances, which led to a dispute between the two young composer–pianists. (“It’s my interpretation”; “But it’s my music”.) Characteristically, Rachmaninov stressed the nostalgia, Scriabin the airborne impetus of this prelude. More stylistic thumbprints can be observed in No 9 in E (Moscow, November 1895) – the active left hand which the right hand seems to be commenting on and the skipping dotted triplet figure (a Chopin rhythm) which recurs three times with tender melancholy – in December Scriabin’s teenage love, Natalya Sekerina, was to refuse decisively his proposal of marriage.

No 10 in C sharp minor (Moscow, 1894) is even more characteristic in sonority, with the horn-like middle part established near the beginning and sustained through four final punctuating chords, and the chiming sevenths which run throughout. With No 11 in B we return to Moscow and to November 1895 (the next ten preludes were written in this year) but the regret has been replaced by a palpitating heart-in-mouth excitement, enhanced by a virtuosic left-hand part. The free-floating right-hand rubato of the middle section is typical of the pianistic style Scriabin developed from his idol Chopin. No 12 in G sharp minor (Witznau, June) was written in a resort on Lake Lucerne. It shares a tonality with Op 16 No 2, written in the same place – and with the Second Sonata Op 19 (1892-7), which was inspired by the Ligurian and Black Seas. A typically slow ‘Russian’ andante, its brooding quality is created by suspended harmonies of the kind whose importance would steadily increase in Scriabin’s musical language.

Part III starts with another slow prelude, No 13 in G flat (Moscow), exploiting the velvety quality of six flats and ending with a typical ‘horn call’ sonority. Its companion piece, No 14 in E flat minor (Dresden), depicts a mountain stream at Bastei dashing itself against the rocks. The time signature, then unusual, is 5/8 (Tchaikovsky, of course, had written a 5/4 movement in the Symphonie pathétique in 1893): Prokofiev might have marked it ‘precipitato’. Back to Moscow for No 15 in D flat: a cloistral hush and an airborne, suspended quality created by two-part writing in the middle register (very like that at the beginning of The Dream of Gerontius, part 2) introduce a song of deep peace. Its negative counterpart was written in November (No 16 in B flat minor). Here, endlessly repeated sequences are unbalanced by asymmetric rhythm (very rare in Scriabin): 5/8 and 4/8 alternate in a nightmarish march into the abyss.

The next two preludes were written in Witznau in June 1895. No 17 in A flat is brief and blissful, like Chopin’s A major Prelude. The key of F minor, relatively rare during the classical period, was associated with anger or outbursts of passion: Mozart used it for Count Almaviva’s rage in Figaro. Chopin’s F minor Prelude is extraordinarily violent, and was characterised by Alfred Cortot as a ‘malediction’; Scriabin’s Prelude No 18 in the same key is a tempestuous study in left-hand octaves, taken over later by the right hand.

The first prelude of the final section, No 19 in E flat (Heidelberg, 1895) is mature early Scriabin: the phrase shapes are characterised by a ‘swooping’ short descent followed by upward flight, with skipping dotted rhythms contributing to the sensation of weightlessness. The demanding left-hand accompaniment is rhythmically ahead of itself, each figure starting on the final semiquaver of the beat – a device perhaps derived from Schumann. No 20 in C minor (Moscow, 1895) has a meteoric career not unlike Scriabin’s own, blazing with the most elevated of ideals and abruptly snuffed out after brief protest. Interestingly, the composer’s son-in-law Sofronitsky preferred to play the manuscript version, where this tragedy is softened by a major-mode ending. The arrangement of the cycle seems to go against this: the tranquillity of No 21 in B flat (Moscow, 1895) is repeatedly interrupted by silences and No 22 in G minor (Paris, 1896) has an insistently falling, regretful cadence. The mood lightens with No 23 in F, written the previous year in the idyllic surroundings of Witznau. lts rustling broken-chord figurations are a clear homage to Chopin’s own F major Prelude – a backward glance before the heaven-storming No 24 in D minor (Heidelberg, 1895) which wisely avoids meeting Chopin on his own ground, concentrating instead on the pulsating chordal writing which had concluded the Etudes of Op 8.

from notes by Simon Nicholls © 2001

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