SCRIABIN: Preludes, Etudes, Sonatas, and other works = 6 Preludes, Op. 13; 5 Preludes, Op. 16; Sonata No. 4, Op. 30; Sonata No. 5, Op. 53; Poeme tragique, Op. 34; Poeme satanique, Op. 36; Eight Etudes, Op. 42; Vers la flamme, Op. 72 – Vadym Kholodenko, piano – Harmonia mundi HMM 902255, 72:01 (7/13/18) [Dist. by PIAS] ****:

Vadym Kholodenko (rec. 1 September 2017) celebrates Alexander Scriabin’s “imaginative, fantastic, musical world,” citing his teacher Vera Gornostaeva, with a diverse selection of “poems” which trace the iconoclastic composer’s evolution—via Chopin and Liszt—into a self-proclaimed visionary of light. A master of concision, Scriabin penned for the better part of a decade various series of “poemes,” distilled miniatures —some 34 of them—that, like the paintings of J.W.N. Turner, increasingly become infused with light; if they are indeed poetry, then their obvious kinship lies in William Blake.

Scriabin conceived his sets of Preludes, Opp. 13 and 16 (1895), as extensions of his Op. 11 set, meant to complement his appreciation of the Chopin oeuvre, Op. 28. The opening C Major Prelude, Maestoso, from Op. 13 has a Lisztian cast, diatonic in harmony and moving in dotted rhythm as a march. The ensuing Allegro in A minor calls for quick eighths in the right hand, the scales running rather feverishly. We follow Chopin’s circle of fifths to G Major, Andante, a rocking moment of melancholy. The last three preludes prove to be studies in five versus triplets, sixths, and octaves, with big spans for the left hand. The E minor seems subdued, meant to charm, with the hands’ alternating the melodic line. The Allegro in D, No. 5, plays like an etude in sixths. The No. 6 in B minor provides an emotionally wrought Presto, whose grand climax Kholodenko makes shine before the piece dissolves in a manner that adumbrates the late sonatas.

Scriabin’s Op. 16 set eschews virtuosity and bravura for keyboard lyricism. The B Major Andante creates a lovely duet for the middle voice and high register. The following Allegro in G-sharp minor opens with moments of pianissimo that call in ff affirmations. The Andante cantabile in G-flat Major has a meditative atmosphere, enigmatic in the parlando manner of Debussy. Even more subdued, the Lento in E-flat minor seems subjective and hymn-like. The final Allegretto in F-sharp Major, plastic and refined, lasts but 40 seconds but makes a laconic moment of closure.

Scriabin wrote his Sonata No 4 in F-sharp Major, Op. 30 (1903) in two movements, much like those sonatas in Beethoven’s late-middle period. A sonata-poem, the piece intimates—especially through the use of the trill—an exalted mysticism, the expression of exhilaration in pursuing one’s personal star. The shimmering quality of Kholodenko’s keyboard in the Andante gravitates to both Liszt and Wagner, especially the latter’s Tristan. The ecstasies erupt, Prestissimo volando, in bursts of energy, frenetic, convulsive, but whose emotional violence finds tempered finesse in Kholodenko’s Fazioli instrument, recorded sonorously by Brad Michel.

Portrait of Alexander Scriabin

Alexander Scriabin

The volcanic 1907 Sonata No. 5 in F-sharp Major came about in three or four days, mostly as a keyboard complement to the symphonic Poem of Ecstasy, especially when Scriabin marks “caressingly.” A blaze of punishing sound opens the work, which in his dire opinion, Rachmaninov characterized as “a wrong turn” in Scriabin’s creative output. Built on progressions of leaping fourths, the music often tempers into meditation, marked Languido. But then Kholodenko must jolt us forward into eddies of intoxicated sound, marked as Allegro impetuoso con stravanganza, Allegro fantastico, Leggerissimo volando, Presto giocoso, ecstatico, and other such flights of fancy that really wish to remain ineffable. As much as they figures fly and dance in syncopation, they also tend to melt into textures that indulge in extremes, much as in the music of Liszt, who, too, saw F-sharp Major as a key of transcendence. Kholodenko stamps out chords or eases out diaphanous tissue as required.  Scriabin’s “program” of “mysterious forces” call forth “the dark depths of the creative spirit.” The entire, one-movement sonata must emerge from a single block of Promethean clay, a metamorphic plasma, a sonorous tonal system that refers only to itself and for itself, the solipsism of the artist the only arbiter of reality. Out of the identical Promethean impulse arises the 1914 Vers la flamme, among the composer’s final efforts. Opening in relatively static terms, the music gives birth to itself, blossoming into lit colors based on trills, rapid percussive chords, tremolos, syncopes, and a throbbing bass line. The evolution must become apocalyptic, as Scriabin’s intended, last opus meant to be, his never-completed Mysterium.

The two poems of 1903, the Poeme tragique and the Poeme satanique, alternately project tumult, the first in hammered chords and broad arpeggios in the left hand. Scriabin asks that the middle section be played irato, fiero, removing any sense of rest or respite in the mortal storm. Perhaps Scriabin wished to “answer” Liszt’s Mephisto series of waltzes and polkas, but his own “satan” seems liquid and skittishly elusive, asking for a riso ironico, a derisive laugh that we know from Eine Faust-Sinfonie. The broken-chord play becomes increasingly agitated and enigmatic, at once.

While Scriabin had published a set of Etudes, Op. 8, his 1903 set of eight Etudes, Op. 42 reveals a new depth and intricacy of expression. The first in D-flat Major, Presto, sets a chord of nine notes against five in the left hand. The moods, quite mercurial, shift in velocity, metrics, touch, and texture. The No. 2 lacks any tempo indication, set in F-sharp minor. A dotted rhythm in the right hand flows over quintuplets in the left. Marked Prestissimo, also in F-sharp minor, No. 3 moves in shimmering triplets, quite the child of Chopin.  No. 4, Andante, in F-sharp Major, returns to the world of Scriabin’s nocturnal reveries, liquid silver from Kholodenko.  No. 5, Affetuoso, in C-sharp minor, remained a favorite of the composer. It subscribes to the Promethean ethos, building an obsessive theme over agitated arpeggios. Elemetns of No. 5 and No. 2 infiltrate the Etude No. 6, Esaltato, in D-flat Major, has the subdued character as Ravel’s valley of bells. The condensed Agitato, No. 7 in F minor, proffers triplets against eighths, utilizing big stretches in the hands. An Allegro (E-flat Major) in ternary form, the last etude plays as an improvisation in ripple effects, but it suddenly breaks off into a nocturne whose message seems solemn against the otherwise fleeting motion of the outside sections.

—Gary Lemco