SCRIABIN: Piano Sonata No. 5; Piano Sonata No. 4 in F-sharp Major; Poeme in F-sharp Major; Vers la flamme: poeme; JANACEK: On the Overgrown Path, Book I; Piano Sonata 1 “From the Street” – Stephen Hough, p. – Hyperion

by | Nov 23, 2015 | Classical CD Reviews

SCRIABIN: Piano Sonata No. 5, Op. 53; Piano Sonata No. 4 in F-sharp Major, Op. 30; Poeme in F-sharp Major, Op. 32, No. 1; Vers la flamme: poeme, Op. 72; JANACEK: On the Overgrown Path, Book I; Piano Sonata 1.X.1905 “From the Street” – Stephen Hough, p. – Hyperion CDA67895, 72:39 (11/13/15) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:

Stephen Hough enters Scriabin’s erotic, plastic world (rec. 24-25 May 2011) with a highly refined, sensitive realization of the 1907 Sonata No. 5, whose unnerving sensuality and ecstatic, rushing flights of fantasy had Rachmaninov exclaiming, “I felt as if I had been beaten with sticks!” With the work’s stops and starts, its languorous approach to rubato and its vacillations between F-sharp Major and B-flat, the resultant swirl – its panoply of dramatic gestures – delays any sense of cadential closure.  Bright little comets of sound flash through a welter of siren-like bass chords, all quite watery, in a reverie that combines aspects of Chopin and Liszt.  The last section, marked Presto con allegrezza, attains a luminous and muscular clarity, a transfiguration of what might have been in Chopin a mazurka.

How suddenly calm the music of Leos Janacek (rec.  7-8 May 2013) appears, by juxtaposition, with the suite On the Overgrown Path, conceived between 1900-1911.  Yet, this outward serenity of the first piece of the ten-movement suite, “Our evenings,” contains a fluttering motif of the night-owl, a harbinger of death. Janacek was to suffer the loss of two children (in 1890 and 1903), one prior to and one after the creation of these pieces, so the sense of mortality haunts much of the composition.  The fourth entry, “The Frydek Madonna,” refers to the town in which we find the Basilica of the Visitation of the Virgin. The hymn chords suggest a fateful pilgrimage that results in aerial arpeggios and harmonium sonorities that allow us a sense of repose. “They chattered like swallows” must refer to memories of the composer’s children, perhaps with their mother, who became disaffected from Janacek after the death of Olga from typhoid fever. The remaining five sections each bear a title indicative of relentless sorrow and personal travail, of a bitterness beyond words.

Hough then returns to Scriabin’s rarified universe in the form of two poems from distinctly contrasted perspectives: the 1903 F-sharp Major Poeme and the late (1914) Vers la flamme: poeme, the latter’s signifying the composer’s attachment to Prometheus and perhaps Icarus. The Op. 32 Poeme purrs, sensual and graceful in its dropping figures. Given the historical context, 1914, of Vers la flamme, we might construe the inflammatory sensibility as an attempt at renewal, a kind of musical phoenix in a program for an improved humanity, not so far from Nietzsche.  Scriabin may well have considered the condensed, almost atonal piece as his last sonata. Hough invests the poem with a pulsating, neurotic energy.

Janacek’s Piano Sonata “From the street” received its first performance in Brno 27 January 1906 as performed by Ludmilla Tuckova. The title refers to a murderous incident: A Moravian carpenter, Frantisek Pavlik, was bayoneted by militants of the ruling Austrian for his having supported the idea of a Czech-speaking university. Janacek, in a fit of despair, destroyed the third movement, but pianist Tuckova had secretly copied the first two movements, which survive, Presentiment and Death. The latter movement features bell chords and parlando equivalents of Czech dialect. We know better than to send after Hough for whom the bells toll.

Hough concludes this highly personal traversal of two Slavic mystics with Scriabin’s 1903 Fourth Sonata, the shortest of Scriabin’s sonatas and perhaps the most perfect. His craft is flawless here. There are two contrasting movements – a dreamy introduction and a swift and fleeting second movement, which takes off and rushes ahead and up, creating tremendous energy and elation, and then resolves itself in an ecstatic climax. This sonata concentrates on one theme that penetrates the entire work, making it a study in monothematic evolution. Hough intones the first movement in crystalline style, rendering a texture like sheer, brittle glass. The Presto volando invokes the composer’s desire for flight, here more Dedaelus than Icarus, Scriabin’s having carried out his program to an onrush of personal triumph.

—Gary Lemco

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