SCRIABIN: Complete Poemes – Garrick Ohlsson, piano – Hyperion

SCRIABIN: Complete Poemes = Deux poemes, Op. 32; Poeme tragique, Op. 34; Poeme satanique, Op. 36; Poeme, Op. 41; Deux poemes, Op. 44; Feuillet d’album, Op. 45, No. 1; Poeme fantasque, Op. 45, No. 2; Scherzo, Op. 46; Quasi valse, Op. 47; Reverie, Op. 49, No. 3; Fragilite, Op. 51, No. 1; Poeme aile, Op. 51, No. 3; Danse laguide, Op. 51, No. 4; Trois morceaux, Op. 57; Ironies, Op. 56, No. 2; Nuances, Op. 56, No. 3; Deux poemes, Op. 63; Poeme-nocturne, Op. 61; Feuillet d’album, Op. 58; Poeme, Op. 59, No. 1; Deux poemes, Op. 69; Deux poemes, Op. 71; Vers la flame, Op. 72; Deux danses, Op. 73 – Garrick Ohlsson, piano – Hyperion CDA67988, 79:48 (2/10/15)  [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:

For a polished artist of the keyboard who openly professes his antipathy for the music of Robert Schumann, it remains enigmatic that Garrick Ohlsson (rec. 20-22 December 2013) should embrace a natural advocate of the Schumann Romantic ethos – the absolute reliance between literary ideas and musical tone – in Alexander Scriabin. The Scriabin contribution to the Romantic – and specifically Symbolist – tradition, lies in his sense of ecstatic and erotic liberation, accomplished by his expanded harmony built on fourths and his idiosyncratic trill.

The Deux poemes, Op. 32 (1903) certainly adhere to the Schumann tendency to alternate introspection and assertion, by way of his Eusebius and Florestan. Scriabin’s dreamy temper demands what he calls inafferando or the “invisible” application of touch. Choppy metrics notwithstanding, the No. 2 asserts the Whitman advocacy of the self in D Major. The so-called Poeme tragique anticipates descents into the abyss that the orchestral Le poeme de l’extase later explores. The galloping bass figures could easily be ascribed to Medtner’s thick textures. Liszt’s sense of the ironic saturates the relatively expansive Poeme satanique, which Scriabin celebrated for its insincerity. The piece basks in the sudden alternation of keyboard textures, rife with metric allusions to Liszt’s Mephisto. In sympathetic pieces like the Ironies and the non-resolved Enigme (Op. 52, No. 2), Scriabin juxtaposes the amorous and the cynical impulses, preparing the way for excursions like Prokofiev’s Op. 17 Sarcasms. Rising sixths mark the Op. 41 Poeme, marked Agitato con passione, in which the post-Wagner harmony of an introverted nocturne still wishes to resolve its yearnings in the tonic.

The years 1904-1905 involve Scriabin’s dual commitment to his mistress Tatyana Schloezer and to the theurgic writings of theosophists like Mme. Blavatsky. Three Poemes in C Major appear between the opera 44 and 45, but their character moves from reverie to uneasy dreams that prepare us for Gregor Samsa. The various “album leaves” retain their essential dance character, even in a love-song. The Op. 46 Scherzo plays like a toccata at first, but it decides to lift off, its epilogue a salute to Dedaelus. A series of “gentle” tritones marks the Quasi valse, Op. 47, music already undermining its civilized appearance. The ensuing Reverie: Con finezza (from Op. 49) explicitly presents the mystical erotic which we expect from Scriabin.

From 1906 we have Ohlsson’s shimmering pieces from Quatre morceaux, Op. 51, whose Poeme aile offers a fluttering impulse virtually “lifted” from Schumann’s Vogel als Prophet, Op. 82, No. 7. Explicitly, the Danse languid prefers unstable harmonies akin to later Debussy, and we recall that “languid” as a gesture dominates Wilde’s Dorian Gray. The idea of musical harmony’s literally “melting” into various chromatic colors derives almost single-handedly from Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. Scriabin’s Poeme, Op. 52, No. 1 synthesizes that procedure into two and one half minutes of music. Pieces like Nuances, Desir, and Caresse dansee (1908) express he composer’s self-conception of instantiated erotic impulse that seeks, as does Nietzsche, to find liberty in dance. At the same time a sense of the capricious, the irresponsible, haunts the Deux poemes, Op. 69 (1913) and Etrangete, Op. 63, No. 2, which might echo those “wild arabesques” in Poe’s Usher, but no less the seductions of Jean-Paul Richter in Schumann.

Compared to the other miniature compressions of sensuality and mystery, the Poeme-nocturne, Op. 61 (1912) must stand as a major work, akin to the Op. 61 Polonaise-Fantasy of Chopin. Calling for “a capricious grace” of execution, the music often suggests tolling bells that disturb an already restive vision of aerial motives colliding with ambiguous, deconstructed  harmonies, Puck’s encounter with Ligeia. With 1914, we enter Scriabin’s last phase of completed work, in which the element of divine fire, “the Modern Prometheus,” figures so prominently. Running figures flame upward and outward, the emotional colossi of the Fifth Sonata now merge economically into those “dangerous” energies of the late “masses” – sonatas of white and black magic.

The pre-Socratic notion that the world destructs and reassembles in fire appeals to Yeats as well as Scriabin, and Vers la flame, Op. 72 becomes an apotheosis of its own myth. Scriabin, like the painter Turner, converts or dissolves experience into illuminating or blinding light, perhaps a distinction without a difference. The final Flammes sombres sounds a counterpart to the darkly mystical late Liszt, a vision from Dante, Wilde, or Mussorgsky, where degradation in eros enjoys that “pride of individualism” which provides the attraction and ruin of willful sin.

—Gary Lemco

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