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SCRIABIN: Piano Sonata No. 1 in F Minor; Piano Sonata No. 2; Poeme in F-sharp Major; Prelude in G Minor; Four Preludes; Deux Morceaux; Sonata No. 6; Two Poemes; Piano Sonata No. 7, “White Mass” – Matthew Bengtson, p. – Romeo

SCRIABIN Vol. II: Piano Sonata No. 1 in F Minor, Op. 6; Piano Sonata No. 2 in G-sharp Minor, Op. 19; Poeme in F-sharp Major, Op. 32, No. 1; Prelude in G Minor, Op. 27, No.1; Four Preludes, Op. 37; Deux Morceaux, Op. 59; Sonata No. 6, Op. 62; Two Poemes, Op. 63; Piano Sonata No. 7, Op. 64 “White Mass” – Matthew Bengtson, piano – Romeo Records 7308, 75:37 [Distr. by Albany] ****:

In honor of the one hundredth anniversary of the death of Alexander Scriabin (1871-1915), Matthew Bengtson extends his survey of the Scriabin piano opera with Volume II of the Sonatas, recorded on the Steinway at Piano Craft, Gaithersburg MD. Matthew Bengtson has studied with Ann Schein, Robert Levin, and Malcolm Bilson. The present selection of works embraces true dichotomies in Scriabin’s personality: the 1893 Sonata No. 1 looks to the past in its four movements, certainly to Chopin, whose own Funeral March Sonata finds more than passing reference in the last movement of the F Minor Sonata, Op. 6.  Curiously, while Scriabin would reject the Classical models – “the music of yesterday” – in the Beethoven sonatas as he evolved his style into one-movement “poems,” he took Beethoven’s liberated trill as a major element in his own work, especially as the last movement of the Bonn master’s Op. 109 remained a personal source of delight to Scriabin.

The influence of Beethoven’s Op. 109 makes itself known in the 1897 Sonata No. 2 in G-sharp Minor, whose opening movement, Andante, more than flirts with E Major in liquid, semi-occult harmonies that resound with aspects of Schubert and Liszt. Hammer blows infiltrate the otherwise “watery” sensibility of the first movement, but the sensuous weave of Scriabin’s visionary palette remains palpable in Bengtson’s rendition. The filigree of the coda moves into the right hand of the more virtuosic Presto second movement, which escalates in power and turbulence into a broiling volcano.

Bengtson exploits languor and passion in the 1903 Poeme, Op. 32, No. 1, a duet in counterpoint, a teasing waltz in hesitant motion moving inaferando into an indulgent vortex that combines rapture and aromatic vapors. The 1900 Prelude in G Minor has much of Rachmaninov’s passionate style, though gleaned from Taneyev. The Four Preludes, Op. 37 (1903) still toy with traditional chromatic harmony, but the envelope shows splits. The askew jubilation of the No. 2 in F-sharp Major reveals the Liszt influence, especially from the Dante Sonata. The B Major conveys a Romantic disposition, its chords easy models for the likes of Duke Ellington and Billy Taylor. The No. 4 in G Minor combines declamations from both Schumann and Wagner, but highly abbreviated.

With the Deux Morceaux, Op. 59 (1911), Bengtson transitions into Scriabin’s late style, freed of key signatures and traditional harmony, but rather relying on intervals of the fourth placed in nervous, jabbing, rhythmic spaces. If the feminine delicacy of the Poeme suggests Schumann’s Eusebius, the assertiveness of the Prelude challenges Stravinsky and Mussorgsky for intrusive repetition. Then, the irrational mystic, the explorer of the “imp of the perverse,” appears in the so-called “Promethean chord” of the eerie and eldritch Sixth Sonata (1912), in which the piano attempts to become simultaneously weightless and symphonic. In the course of jagged, palsied movements and gestures, the Terrifying One ascends, and the music transforms into a delirious dance of competing triple and duple meters. The sheer color range – especially in the high- register trills and arabesques – of this rarely performed sonata warrants the price of admission.

Conrad’s “fascination of the abomination” informs the Deux Poemes, Op. 63 (1912), the Masque and the Etrangete, respectively. The first piece requires “a hidden sweetness,” but that could be the power of Evil to assume a pleasing shape. The more prismatic, quasi-Debussy second piece asks for “a sudden strangeness,” an ambivalent moment in the high registers, either ecstatic or exiled. Scriabin indulges his messianic sensibility in his Seventh Sonata, the “White Mass” of 1912. The hesitant and flickering motive design may betray a debt to Schumann’s “The Prophet Bird” of Op. 82; but the music wants to expose Scriabin’s sense of the transcendent, the numinous, in its hieratic fanfares, stratified dissonances, and idiosyncratic Russian bells.

Bengtson joins those Scriabin acolytes – Horowitz, Sofronitzky, Richter, Berman, Barere, Neuhaus – who relish the solipsistic mystic for his own audacious personality, his liberated subjectivity. We spend with Bengtson over an hour in a rarified labyrinth, infinitely and ineffably compelling.

—Gary Lemco

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