PLAYLIST #1 ~ TRACK 21
Vladimir Ashkenazy, piano
Dead-eyed Sasha Scriabin: high foppery with the genius to back it up
In my mind there are two quite different composers called Alexander Scriabin (both 1872–1915), who betray no sign of ever having been introduced to, let alone influenced by, each other. One is a writer of thin-toned, melodically sub-Lisztian, frequently hectoring orchestral works (all that cymbal and trumpet every five minutes), who despite my best efforts over the years I’ve never been able to get on good terms with. The Third Symphony (the alleged Divine Poem), for example, strikes me as unbelievably banal almost throughout. Not before the Poem of ecstasy (otherwise, fourth symphony) and Prometheus (number five, the Poem of fire) does he come close to convincing me, and then it’s through sheer force of compositional personality – and probably, in the latter case, the prominence of the piano. The best critic of this composer may have been William Blake, who said: “The fool who persists in his folly will become wise.”
The other Scriabin, the piano composer, I love with a passion; if I had to choose just one item from this playlist, Desert Island Discs-style, it might even be this one. Within the piano music itself, it seems to me, there’s another split, in that the later composer (the sixth sonata on) can seem quite different from the earlier. As if to back this up, pianists – leaving out of account the great Horowitz, exception to many a rule – have tended to be more successful in one period or the other. For the dense, abstract, single-movement later sonatas, for example, you might want Robert Szidon‘s early-70s DG readings (inadequately tagged on Spotify – exemplifying a point made elsewhere on this site). For the earlier ones, you can’t go wrong with Scriabin’s long-exiled Russian compatriot Vladimir Ashkenazy, heard here in number two.
Like the Alkan, Liszt and Mussorgsky pieces in the playlist, this sonata, completed in Paris in 1897, though on the stocks five years by then, is an example of programme music, and as with the first two there is a watery theme. As Scriabin wrote, this first movement (of two) “represents the quiet of a southern night on the seashore”. He actually called the work a ‘Sonata–Fantasie’, and it’s tempting to see it as more fantasy than sonata. To be sure, the familiar outlines of sonata form are all in place in this Andante: the relatively long exposition, featuring a lovely, song-like second main theme (1’02”); the development, beginning 3’47” (being “the dark agitation of the deep, deep sea”) and taking the form of an increasingly stormy treatment of the opening theme; the glittering recapitulation (“caressing moonlight coming up after the first darkness of night”), reached with the climactic statement of the opening theme at 5’12”; and the coda (6’55”) ending with a return (7’55”) to the piece’s opening. All this is just an armature, however, on which Scriabin sculpts the subtlest, most elaborately ramified construction, in the process raising mere decoration to the level of high art. This is a soundworld for which magical is hardly an adequate word. The Rough Guide to Classical Music tells us that “the first four of the ten numbered sonatas are for the most part routinely Romantic, relying heavily on the legacy of Chopin and featuring a lot of aimless, overripe material”. As far as I’m concerned this is spectacularly misguided and misses the point completely, as though the Sagrada Família were to be criticized in the same terms. In this music I hear not a single note too many, too few, or out of place.