ALEXANDER SCRIABIN: The Ten Piano Sonatas x Two — Robert Taub on HM & Yakov Kasman on Calliope

by | Aug 29, 2005 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

ALEXANDER SCRIABIN:  Sonatas 1 thru 10 — Robert Taub, piano — Harmonia mundi MHX 2907366.67 (2 CDs), 2 hrs. 12:15 ****:

Sonatas 1 thru 10 — Yakov Kasman, piano — Calliope CAL 3254.5 (2 CDs) (Distr. by Harmonia mundi), 2 hrs. 23:00 ***:

In these often-astonishing sonatas, composed between 1892 and 1913,
Scriabin created a unique body of solo  keyboard works which takes
its place alongside other such masterpieces as The Well-Tempered
Klavier, the Scarlatti keyboard sonatas, the Beethoven Sonatas and the
Debussy Preludes. At the beginning the composer was under the spell of
Chopin and Liszt and his first two sonatas seem enlarged canvases of
the same material he was writing in his many early etudes and other
minatures. He even concludes the First Sonata with a funeral march that
definitely reminds one of Chopin.

By the Third Sonata in F-sharp minor Scriabin was beginning to explore
his own special take on chromatic harmonies, and the short Fourth in
the same key ramps up the chromaticism and visionary writing. The Fifth
Sonata took Scriabin in his cosmic period, with his famous Mystic Chord
— which became central to his style from then on — appearing for the
first time.  The composer considered the Sixth Sonata so demonic
that he refused to perform it in public. Like most of the later
sonatas, it is in single-movement form. The Seventh and Ninth are
subtitled “White Mass” and “Black Mass” respectively — the first
intended to be an exorcism for the Sixth and the Ninth a concentrated
single movement of great intensity.  The in-between Eighth is the
lengthiest of all the sonatas — a rambling and surprisingly gentle
work.  The Tenth Sonata is an ethereal summation of Scriabin’s
sensual/spiritual sonic world. Don’t try to take in all ten sonatas at
one sitting just because they’re on a double-disc set. That would be
like downing ten absinths at once.

The complexity and density of much of these works borders on the
frightening.  Unlike Chopin and Liszt, the complexities don’t
often fit a familiar structure, but seem to sail off into the unknown
cosmos. One can hardly accept that Scriabin had very small hands! 
It takes a very special keyboard artist to properly present these
mystical piano works.  Probably the first choice  of
performers of the recent past would be Horowitz, but he didn‘t record
all ten and the sonics are not up to the quality of either of these new
contenders. Ashkanazy did record all of them for Decca, but I don’t
find him mystical enough, especially in the later sonatas.  My
vote of this comparison would go to Robert Taub.  His set sparkles
with enthusiastic brilliance, and just enough of the extreme emotional
quality that makes any reader of the life of Scriabin think the
composer would have made a terrific patient for Sigmund Freud. The
total times reveal that he also tends toward a more sprightly gait in
the sonatas than does Russian pianist Kasman.  The recorded
quality of the Calliope set is just a tad “hooded” sonically, and piano
timbre sounds just a bit sour here and there.  In contrast the
Taub set is clean and impactful, with a wide open soundstage.

— John Sunier   

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