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Piano Sonata No 4 in F sharp major, Op 30

'Scriabin: Complete Piano Sonatas' (CDA67131/2)
Scriabin: Complete Piano Sonatas
Movement 1: Andante
Movement 2: Prestissimo volando

Piano Sonata No 4 in F sharp major, Op 30
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 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.’

from notes by Simon Nicholls © 1996

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Details for CDA67131/2 disc 1 track 13
Prestissimo volando
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 13
    Release date: March 1996
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