SCRIABIN: Extase: Etudes for Piano = Etude, Op. 2, No. 1; 12 Etudes, Op. 8; 8 Etudes, Op. 42; 2 Etudes, Op. 65 – Michele Gurdal, piano – Challenge Classics CC72640, 51:51 [Distr. by Allegro] ****:
Pianist Michele Gurdal – a pupil of Dimitri Bashkirov, Anatol Ugorski and John O’Connor – assumes the mantle of predecessors Morton Estrin and Ruth Laredo, inscribing the major portion of the Scriabin etudes in two days, 1-2 May 2013. Passionate and erotic as well as technically demanding, the Scriabin etudes the kind of plastic tension Gurdal calls “Extase” as her motivational rubric. “Scriabin wanted a total work of art, into which all the senses are drawn. He wanted to transport his audience with his music into other spheres, to bring them nearer to God.”
Gurdal opens with the wistful C-sharp Minor, Andante, Etude from 1887, marked by its demands on the left hand for spread chords. Gurdal then proceeds to the Op. 8 set from 1894-1895. Tempestuous emotions alternate with dark melancholy and romantic nocturnes. The No. 10 in D-flat Major seems to rival Rubinstein’s Staccato Etude. The music lies within the confines of traditional harmony, but the internal rhythms – as in No. 2 in F-sharp Minor – collide in duple and triple arpeggio pulsations. Gurdal plays the No. 4 in B Major, Piacevole, as a liquid exercise close to both Liszt and Debussy. The sound of her Bechstein instrument becomes pellucid, courtesy of Recording Engineer Piotr Furmanczyk. The Con Grazia, No. 6 in A Major, owes everything to Chopin, inflected by Liszt’s sonority. The B-flat Minor, Presto tenebroso, agitato intends to roil the surface – in double flats – of the water and bring forth disturbing visions. While tender, the A-flat Major Lento caresses dark impulses. The Alla Ballata No. 9 in G-sharp Minor proffers Scriabin’s answer to a turbulent Chopin ballade, galloping with a fury we know also from Liszt’s Wilde Jagd. No. 11 in B-flat Minor spreads both hands in large chords while a lush melody arises over a thoughtful bass line. Finally, the old Horowitz volcano, the D-sharp Minor, Patetico, Etude, whose voluptuous agony dissolves any distinction between pleasure and pain.
Scriabin Eight Etudes, Op. 42 (1902-03) demonstrate the move to a greater concision in the composer’s expressive language, an economy that his Romantic efforts had lacked. Scriabin also eschews anything folkish or nationalistic in his rhythms. Scriabin’s experiments in polyrhythm abound in this set of etudes, as in No. 6 in D-flat Major, Esaltato. The writing, as in the F-sharp Major, Prestissimo, has become rarified, totally pianistic. The Andante in F-sharp Major, however, still evinces a natural vocal line, albeit enhanced harmonically with delayed resolutions to the chord shifts. The darkest of the set, No. 5 in C-sharp Minor, Affanato, plumbs Wagner’s depths with an erotic urgency most threatening to the Victorian sensibility. More sirens’ calls from a swirling sea appear in the F Minor, Agitato, but the song vaporizes too quickly. The last of the set in E-flat Major, Allegro, most resembles a Rachmaninov Etude-Tableau. Declamatory and introspective, the piece suddenly accelerates in agitated motion that manages to remain liquid under Gurdal’s deft hands and pedaling.
Gurdal performs only the last two of the Three Etudes, Op. 65 (1912). Scriabin had written of these works: “A composer you know has written three etudes! In fifths (Horrors!), in ninths (How depraved!), and in major sevenths (the last fall from Grace!?) What will the world say?” Gurdal confesses her hands are too small to negotiate the continuous stretch of a ninth in the right hand. But the two others she plays with ferocity and size, aligning them to the Poemes and late Sonatas of the era. As a document of power and color, these pieces provide a staggering amalgam of keyboard effects, performed with reverent affection.