The Sonata No 9, Op 68 (‘Black Mass’), is perhaps the most famous of all Scriabin’s sonatas. Its title is the invention of Alexei Podgayetsky, a pianist, admirer, theosophist and companion. It certainly reflects the nature of the music: framed by bare, strictly imitative writing, the atmosphere is Satanic. The repeated notes marked ‘mystérieusement murmuré’ which answer the first, harshly dissonant climax distantly recall the ‘Mephistopheles’ motive in Liszt’s B minor sonata, and the technique by which the lyrical second subject appears in increasingly seductive guises and finally emerges as a grotesque march is a parody in the spirit of Berlioz’s ‘Songe d’une nuit du Sabbat’ in the Symphonie fantastique
. A figure of crescendoing trills, which raises the tension, is like a conjuration. After a sensual but ‘poisonous’ (Scriabin’s description) interlude, where pleasure and pain seem to be inextricably mingled, every subsequent tempo marking is an increase in speed; the first idea is recapitulated with its figuration speeded up and spread widely over the keyboard, a breath-taking innovation which completely removes the traditional drop in tension associated with recapitulation to which Boris de Schloezer objected. After the carefully calculated peak of dissonance reached in the march, which the composer described as a ‘parade of the forces of evil’, the music breaks for a few bars into whirling fragmentation—writing just three years after the piece was composed, A E Hull coined the memorable phrase ‘molecular vertigo’. The return of the opening bars leaves us wondering where, or how, this vision or dream has vanished.
from notes by Simon Nicholls © 1996