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Piano Sonata No 3 in F sharp minor, Op 23

'Scriabin: Complete Piano Sonatas' (CDA67131/2)
Scriabin: Complete Piano Sonatas
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Movement 1: Drammatico
Movement 2: Allegretto
Movement 3: Andante
Movement 4: Presto con fuoco

Piano Sonata No 3 in F sharp minor, Op 23
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.

from notes by Simon Nicholls © 1996

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Details for CDA67131/2 disc 1 track 7
Recording date
29 June 1995
Recording venue
All Saints' Church, East Finchley, London, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Andrew Keener
Recording engineer
Tony Faulkner
Hyperion usage
  1. Scriabin: Complete Piano Sonatas (CDA67131/2)
    Disc 1 Track 7
    Release date: March 1996
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