Hyperion Records

Piano Sonata No 1 in F minor, Op 6
composer
1892

Recordings
'Scriabin: Complete Piano Sonatas' (CDA67131/2)
Scriabin: Complete Piano Sonatas
Details
Movement 1: Allegro con fuocoso
Movement 2: [crotchet = 40]
Movement 3: Presto
Movement 4: Funèbre

Piano Sonata No 1 in F minor, Op 6
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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.

from notes by Simon Nicholls © 1996

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