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“Klavierabend” – Piano works of HAYDN, SCHUMANN & SCRIABIN – Arakawa, p. – MSR Classics

Pianist Arakawa delivers three keyboard works, each of which owes its passionate urgency to a feminine muse. 

“Klavierabend” – HAYDN: Piano Sonata No. 52 in E-flat Major; SCHUMANN: Fantasie in C Major, Op. 17; SCRIABIN: Piano Sonata No. 3 in f-sharp minor, Op. 23 – Jasmin Arakawa, piano – MSR Classics MS 1619, 68:22 (8/17/16)  [Distr. by Albany] ****: 

Assuming a romantic’s approach to the three diverse musical styles – the three compositions having been directly motivated by the composer’s relationship to a significant woman – Ms. Arakawa displays many colorful moments in her intense survey of Haydn, Schumann, and Scriabin. Each of the works means to express an experimental, improvisational spirit.  Haydn’s 1794 Sonata in E-flat certainly explores the forte-piano’s capacity for sudden contrasts in dynamics and texture.  Much of the first movement’s chromatics look forward to Beethoven, although the secondary theme suggests light-hearted Mozart with its music-box figures.  The development opens in C Major, and then proceeds further afield when the secondary tune makes an appearance in E Major.

The playing from Ms. Arakawa remains pert, crisp, and direct. The Neapolitan key of E Major will provide the home for the second movement, Adagio.  This lovely movement offers a two-part theme whose sections each repeat. With the modulation to C, we feel as if Haydn were beckoning to the first movement, in a loose, cyclic impulse. The “emotional” character of the music, its hesitations and chromatic progress, reminds us of the influence of C.P.E. Bach. Arakawa’s bass chords, pungent and sonorous, gain power through canny pedal effects.  The “art” of deliberate hesitation infiltrates the Presto finale as well: thrice the theme begins, first in the required E-flat but soon in a darker f minor. At strike three, Haydn cuts loose, free to cavort wittily between tonic and dominant harmonies in staccato motion, the music’s sparkling in sonata-form. Everything about the fingerwork suggests a talented virtuoso, Therese Jansen, lay at the heart of Haydn’s florid inspiration.

The etiology of the 1838 Fantasie, “the profound lament by Robert Schumann, has become standard fare for reading all sorts of inner correspondences between young Clara Wieck and her suitor Schumann, who sported his own psychological entourage of literary characters and allusions in his fertile imagination.  Ostensibly conceived as part of an intended tribute to Beethoven in that composer’s home city of Bonn, the piece became a three-movement fantasy dedicated to Liszt, with highly subjective gestures meant to fuse Schumann’s literary impulses with his passionate outbursts. Arakawa delights in the rhetorical effects the piece thrusts forward, including Schumann’s impulsive treatment of syncopations and counterpoint. The “style of a legend” suffuses the second half of the opening movement, which means that declamatory passages respond to musing, improvisatory gestures, usually in arpeggios, repeated notes, and descending scalar patterns. The pregnant pauses bespeak a yearning quality that invests the convulsive aspects with a searing nostalgia.   The energized march of the second movement embodies Schumann’s oft-militant pose against Philistinism, here in blazing syncopations in dotted rhythm. Arakawa manages the passionate militancy without resorting to excessive pounding, the two-octave gestures’ retaining their capacity for poetry. The combination of obstinacy and heroic solipsism likely attracted Scriabin to this work.  The figures do manage to dance, so the character of the piece, even in its expressively manic coda, remains virtuosic and illuminated at once. Arakawa saved her eminently poetic gestures for the last movement, loosely allusive to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, since we have already passed through the “To the Distant Beloved” allusions of Beethoven’s Op. 98. The soft hue Arakawa furnishes for the rolling arpeggios do induce a lulling effect, typical of Schumann’s “nostalgia for the dream.” The repeated figures achieve a climax, twice, the first engendering a poetic epilogue in the form of a chromatic line that forms a cluster of stars. Arakawa savors the color scheme of this huge piece with obvious ardor.

Alexander Scriabin continues to challenge both the fingers and the imaginations of his interpreters. His Third Sonata (1897) marks the fin-de-siecle of traditional Romanticism, while already – via the constant use of attacca designations – eager to link up the four-movement Classical sonata with the demands of Scriabin’s sense of primal unity.  Scriabin might be celebrating his recent nuptials to Vera Ivanovna Isaakovich; the ecstasies of the soul, its “whirlpool of suffering and strife,” would conform to the composer’s expressed program for this work. The pungent opening rhythm of the first movement Drammatico pervades the entire scheme of the piece.  A convulsive ecstasy drives the sonata, often seeking refuge – the second movement Allegretto – in lyric episodes in sixteenth notes that prove rather ephemeral.  In the third movement Andante, we find Arakawa musing much in the Schumann fashion, in a sea of dreams and tender – though obsessive – feelings, the stars’ singing.  The opening movement has reappeared in plastic form, pp and maestoso, so the underlying “harmony” of effect continues. The last movement Presto con fuoco means to culminate in a “victorious song,” seemingly aimed at Liszt’s most transcendent key of F-sharp Major. Whether the “explosive” temperament derives strictly from Scriabin or from Arakawa, it seems likely that the fusion of passionate ambition and ultimate denial – the music breaks off in bleakness – emanates from the confrontation of two kindred spirits.

I note that Recording Engineers Frank Horger and Graham Duncan can take credit for some exemplary piano sound.

—Gary Lemco

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