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SCRIABIN: The Ten Piano Sonatas; Fantasy in b – Garrick Ohlsson, p. – Bridge (2-CDs)

Garrick Ohlsson surveys the whole of the Scriabin sonata cycle.

SCRIABIN: The Ten Piano Sonatas; Fantasy in b minor, Op. 28 – Garrick Ohlsson, p. – Bridge 9468A/B (2-CDs) (12/9/16) 76:23, 71:23 [Distr. by Albany] ****:

Having met and interviewed pianist Garrick Ohlsson (b. 1948), I find him to be somewhat eccentric in his musical tastes, his having excoriated Schumann as a composer too self-involved and self-referencing, but turning to the even more solipsistic Alexander Scriabin as a source of musical enlightenment.  [But then they were all three a bit off mentally speaking, Scriabin included…Ed.] The Scriabin sonata-cycle (rec. 27-29 August 2014; 21-23 April 2015; and May 2015), embraces a musical progression between 1892-1913, tracing an arch Romantic’s response to Chopin and Liszt and evolving a personal sense of rapture that, like the paintings of J.W.N. Turner, become ever infused with light and a desire for a compressed moment of spiritual radiance. The First Sonata in F Minor, Op. 6 bears a stentorian, aggressive cast, especially as it rages against Scriabin’s own physical limits set by an accident to his right hand caused by excessive practice – curiously, a Schumann experience. Gloomy and reflexive, the general mood looks to the Chopin, the Op. 35 “Funeral March” Sonata.  Ohlsson injects a demonized passion into the score, urging the momentum to its inevitable funereal conclusion. The two minor keys, in f and c, struggle with moments of relative peace throughout the entire sonata. The more virtuoso passages clearly mean to celebrate Liszt, whose Don Juan Fantasy Scriabin meant to use as his own vehicle for a keyboard career. Later, Scriabin will fixate on the key of F-sharp Major – Liszt’s own key for spiritual exaltation – as his own expression of transcendent poetic fancy.

The Second Sonata in g-sharp minor (1897) embraces water – the sea – as its pantheistic equivalent of the soul’s many manifestations of being. In the midst of the first movement Andante, the modulation to B Major involves Scriabin’s setting his main melody in the middle of a series of competing textures, as if Venus were ascending from the foam in Botticelli’s painting. Commentators often argue for Scriabin’s synaesthesia as the source for the shifting color and sunlit scheme of the music, which moves to E as a sign of moonlight.  Ohlsson evokes a panoply of tinkling, diaphanous, arpeggiated runs and scalar patterns, all seductive in the manner of Debussy and Scriabin’s own Russian eroticism. The Presto gives us a moto perpetuo, testimony of the composer’s healed right hand. Much of the melodic technique – withholding the complete theme until late – echoes Beethoven’s Appassionata.

The Third Sonata in f-sharp minor, Op. 23 (1897) represents Scriabin’s last attempt to “conform” to traditional sonata-structure in four movements; but even here, with its attacca segues between movements, the music moves to a one-movement scheme of emotional compression.  The Drammatico first movement establishes an aggressive motif that permeates the entire work. Constant close imitation and bell-sonorities build a stratified cathedral of sound that mean to trace “the history of a soul.” The marcato playing seems to emphasize the obsessive character of the music. The ensuing, martial Allegretto brings little or no relief to the emotional tenor of the piece. The character of a dream infuses the Andante; and here, Ohlsson, too, finds an extended moment of repose. The last movement, however, resumes the mortal storm, close in spirit to the conclusion of Chopin’s Op. 35, although more elastic in its desire for relief. Still, the movement ends on a thoroughly ambiguous cadence that offers o guarantee of spiritual victory.

Between the Third Sonata and the Fourth Sonata, Scriabin composed his Fantasy for Piano in b minor, Op. 28 (1900). Janus-like, the work absorbs every Romantic rhetorical device available to the full-fledged virtuoso vehicle; but its compression literally defines the one-movement course of Scriabin’s later opera. Here, the musical model emanates from Wagner, whose Tristan likewise avoids a clear resolution into the tonic. The bass line soars and retreats in the manner of the ocean, finally allowing a fine melody in D Major to emerge. The treatment of this tune, intensely contrapuntal, resembles elements in the Chopin Ballades, especially the Neapolitan aspects of that in g minor. Even Ohlsson’s massive technique occasionally struggles with the sheer density of the writing – the contradictory bass lines that collide with the treble – which moves to a B Major apotheosis similar to the Liszt’s transcription of Isolde’s Liebestod.  When the texture does lighten, Ohlsson makes the relative “ease” of expression feel natural and convincing; else; it sounds like a fiendish etude which both Liszt and Chopin backed away from.

With Sonata No. 4 in F-sharp Major, Op. 30 of 1903, Scriabin separates the movements for the last time, here celebrating his ecstatic sense of Self with an accompanying poem that elevates his soul towards a “sea of light,” an illuminated sense of his Daedelus-like desire for spiritual liberation. Moonstruck and singing in suspended harmonies, the Andante expresses elements from Tristan once more and Scriabin’s so-called “mystic chord” in fourths. The erotic impulses suddenly leap forward without break into the Prestissimo volando, designated to be played as fast as possible, “at the speed of light.” Ohlsson makes the figures gallop in irregular metrics, careening into the sun, a mad dance that might have motivated Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” A rarified delicacy manages to emerge from the glitter and the lascivious pulsations, a sense of some Indian deity, perhaps Shiva, whirling in the joy of his transformative power.

Scriabin called his Fifth Sonata in F-sharp Major, Op. 53 (1907) “a big poem for piano and. . .the best piano composition I have ever written.” Even more indebted to the composer’s subconscious mind, the music virtually drips with emotion and sublimated eroticism. The moments of lightning flexions and startling repose alternate with an unnerving rapidity. Hammering ostinati infiltrate the thick harmonic tapestry, so that the effect seems atonal, but the elastic continuity manages to impose a manic sense of order on a whirling series of psychic chromatic states. Rachmaninov rebelled against this music, admonishing Scriabin, “I believe you have traveled upon a wrong path.”  Scriabin wants Ohlsson to play “caressingly,” and then “with delight” at the advent of newly liberated creative spirit, now infused with cosmic “audacity,” here luminous in single treble notes that accelerate, tremble, spin, collide, and suddenly stop.

In the 1911 Sonata No. 6, Op. 62 Scriabin proclaims himself an heir to Mussorgsky, a sinister mystic who embraces dark forces with a relish that rivals Lady Macbeth and H.P. Lovecraft. No program exists for this eldritch score, but Scriabin declared the piece “nightmarish, fulginous, unclean, and murky,” the last epithet that which Lady Macbeth calls Hell. The composer refused to perform the piece in public, admitting it frightened him. Some of the hammering motifs may remind auditors of Ravel’s equally demonic Scarbo, a musical realization, if you will, of a painting by Fuseli. The 1911 Seventh Sonata in F-sharp Major, Op. 64, on the other hand, complements his Manichean vision, a “White Mass” adorned by figures of “sparkling joy” and “voluptuous radiance,” the composer’s favorite sonata. Already we behold the liberation of the trill as a purely expressive device, which we had seen in the Beethoven Op. 111.  Ohlsson executes ecstatic fanfares and Russian bells meant to exorcise the demons of the Sixth Sonata. It may be heresy to say, in light of Ohlsson’s aversions, that some of the patterns seem redolent with Schumann’s “The Prophet Bird.” The keyboard rages in orchestral sonorities, building up, late in the second development section, a huge chord spread over five octaves to the higher limits of the instrument. The final trills dissolve both space and time, a “consummation devoutly to be wished.”

Scriabin described the relatively long 1913 Eighth Sonata, Op. 66 as containing “some of the most tragic episodes of my life.” Relatively experimental in concept, the work occupies three or four staves to accommodate its complicated textural fabric. Rife with muttering false steps and abbreviated motions, the music communicates a sense of frustration and spiritual futility. Ohlsson accords the work a tragic inwardness, with “harmonies drawn from nature,” in the composer’s words, as if to offer himself consolation for its atonal aimlessness. Shards of melody and erupting motions alternate in choppy groups. The best chords lack conviction, and the worst are filled with passionate intensity. Scriabin never performed this enigmatic composition in public.

Vladimir Horowitz long ago introduced many of his adherents to the alternately lyrical and emotionally combustible ingredients of the Scriabin Ninth Sonata, “Black Mass,” Op. 68. Its “occult” combination of minor ninth chords sets the tone for the jarring and uneasy arpeggios that lull us into a hazy world of motion that reminds us of Liszt’s late gondolas. Ohlsson casts his own spells in the course of this twitchy, convulsive tour of the underworld, with little galloping motifs that dance away into the shadows, sometimes in quick imitation. A gradual apocalypse emerges, a feverish outburst of nightmare chords that diminish in ghostly steps and shimmer into nothingness.  Great sonority from Ohlsson’s Boesendorfer instrument, courtesy of Adam Abeshouse and the Starobin production team.  “A sonata for insects,” insinuated Scriabin about his 1913 Tenth Sonata, Op. 70, permeated by the trills of a delicate and transparent world Ravel glimpsed in Miroirs. Scriabin claimed to have “simplified the harmonies without destroying the Sonata’s psychological complexity.” The interval of the falling third permeates the piece, perhaps the small aperture through which liberated insects soar. Ohlsson produces more singing than buzzing in his rendition, also imparting a sad inwardness as if to communicate the loneliness of such a rarified vision. The ecstasies mount to a concentration on C, although the work avoids that key center for the most part. Whether the ultimate moment clarifies, purifies, and irradiates Scriabin’s chosen world remains the Unanswered Question.

—Gary Lemco

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