SCRIABIN: Piano Music: Poems, Waltzes, Dances – Xiayin Wang, piano – Naxos 8.570412, 66:12 ****:
Young Chinese pianist Xiayin Wang takes on quite a challenge here, essaying short works by Scriabin from his earliest days in the thrall of Chopin to compositions of his last years, in which he created that uniquely otherworldly soundscape he’s famous for. To cover so much stylistic ground in a single recording would seem to challenge a pianist of any experience, but Ms. Wang, who made both her recording and her Carnegie Hall debut in 2007, is undaunted and succeeds in giving us a fascinating portrait of a composer’s remarkable growth.
It’s often noted that in his Opus 1 Schumann created an instantly recognizable pianistic idiom that would evolve but not substantially change. With Scriabin, nothing could be farther from the truth. Like Balakirev before him, Scriabin turned to Chopin for his model instead of more stylistically advanced ones such as Liszt or Alkan. Scriabin’s Opus 1 waltzes, written when the composer was only fourteen, could easily be mistaken for the genuine article, Chopin opus waaaay-posthumous. As with Scriabin’s Piano Concerto, Chopin’s pearly runs and fulsome Romantic chords are beefed up and chromaticised substantially in Scriabin’s Polonaise in B-flat minor, Op. 21, written in his twenty-fifth year, but the spirit of the long-dead master is still very much in evidence.
With the Fantaisie in B minor, Opus 28, we have, well, more languidly fantastic music as befits the title, but Chopin’s influence has been superseded by Liszt’s. Move on a few opus numbers to Deux Poèmes, Op. 32, Poème tragique, Op. 34, and Poème satanique, Op. 36, and we have the first instances of a uniquely Scriabinesque vehicle, the poème, in which the composer was able both to unleash his fantasy and, later, explore his peculiar brand of mysticism. The Tragic Poem is more dramatic than tragic, reflecting the classical definition of tragic, while the Satanic Poem is sly and sardonic in the fashion of Liszt’s Mephisto in the Mephisto Walzes.
So even in the creation of his titles, Scriabin seems poised to confound and mystify, which he does increasingly, as in the Trois Morceaux, Op. 52, with its aptly named central panel Enigme, or the equally enigmatic, brief Feuillet d’album, Op. 58. Here, as Ms. Wang explains in her intriguing and well-written notes to the recording, “This extraordinary small piece could be a postscript to his last big score, Prometheus; the harmony is now marooned in almost stationary pools and circlings, and there are no standard chords.”
On, then, to the ecstatic Vers la flamme, Op. 72, the composer’s own Magic Fire Music, and the eminently undanceable Deux Dances, Op. 73, the second of which, Flammes sombres, alternates between near-static languor and manic, pulsing energy fueled by brutal off-rhythms. The references to flames, as in Scriabin’s orchestral Prometheus, might be a window on his mystical worldview, if anyone could fully grasp it. The Promethean reference probably has to do with Scriabin’s vision of the artist, and specifically himself, as modern-day Prometheus bringing heavenly fire to other mortals. Something like that. As it is, better to let the strangely compelling music speak for itself and leave the metaphysics to Scriabin’s biographers.
In a well-known statement, Aaron Copland both praised and took Scriabin to task for the “extraordinary mistake” whereby, in his sonatas, he strapped a “really new body of feeling into the strait-jacket of the old classical sonata-form, recapitulation and all.” While I don’t entirely subscribe to Copland’s criticism, perhaps it can be said that a truer picture of Scriabin’s genius can be found in these short piano works, at least until he reached his breakthrough in the last two or three sonatas.
I’m happy to have Ms. Wang as tour guide on this journey through Scriabin’s remarkable musical progress. She plays with color, warmth, and drama throughout, and though pianists such as Horowitz and Richter are famously associated with this music, I think you won’t go wrong in trusting a young pianist in command of such large technique and musical intelligence. She’s recorded in nicely resonant, up-to-date sound to boot.