I call you to life, mysterious forces!
Drowned in the obscure depths
of the creative spirit, timid
Embryos of life, to you I bring audacity!
—a vivid description of the release of material from the unconscious mind necessary for the creation of such a complex and innovative work in such a short space of time. Like the Fourth, the Fifth Sonata belongs to the middle period of Scriabin’s music where harmony relates directly and clearly to the tonal system, but many features point already to the final phase. The general plan is of a slow introduction followed by a sonata movement, but slow and fast sections alternate throughout. The piece begins and ends with a fantastical passage of sheer sonority, quite anti-tonal in effect (though, characteristically, based firmly on a mode): starting with subterranean rumblings it flashes rapidly through the range of the keyboard and vanishes, as it were, from sight. The elementally simple motives of the languid prologue artfully foreshadow the themes which are to emerge later. The dance of the ensuing Presto takes up where the Fourth Sonata left off, and there are clear programmatic references to the epigraph: imperious fanfares are answered by distant, fearful shudderings. The third subject, in a slower tempo, is the closest to the atmosphere of the ‘Poem of Ecstasy’: marked ‘caressingly’, and taking chromaticism its furthest yet, it is steeped in sensuality.
At the centre of the piece, marked ‘with delight’, appears the so-called ‘Mystic’ or ‘Promethean’ harmony which was to become the basis of Scriabin’s late style. Mysterious and sophisticated in sonority, it has a simple origin as a chromatically altered dominant chord arranged in fourths instead of thirds.
At the recapitulation Scriabin introduces a new technique: the opening bars are brought back in miniature, speeded up and lightened so that we ‘fly’ through them. This does not prevent a final, ecstatic reprise of the prologue theme with Scriabin’s usual vibrating repeated chords—but, unlike earlier works, the theme is not in octaves but more luminously in single notes in the treble, another characteristic of the late style. The final bars, identical to the beginning, baffled Taneiev, who remarked that the Sonata did not finish but just stopped; this ending could also be thought of as a new beginning, suggesting repeated cycles of creation—Nietzsche’s ‘Eternal Recurrence’.
from notes by Simon Nicholls © 1996