Pianist Jeremy Thompson recreates the composer’s last public appearance as a performer.
SCRIABIN: The Final Recital = 2 Preludes, Op. 35; 4 Preludes, Op. 37; Prelude in G Major, Op. 39, No. 3; Mazurka in E Major, Op. 25, No. 4; Etude in b-flat minor, Op. 8, No. 7; Valse in A-flat Major, Op. 38; Sonata No. 3 in f-sharp minor, Op. 23; 3 Preludes, Op. 74; Nuances, Op. 56, No. 3; Danse languide, Op. 51, No. 4; Guirlandes, Op. 73, No. 1; Flammes sombres, Op. 73, No. 2; Etrangete, Op. 63, No. 2; Sonata No. 4 in F-sharp Major, Op. 30 – Jeremy Thompson, piano – MSR MS 1669, 65:57 (11/2017) [Distr. by Albany] ****:
Pianist Jeremy Thompson realizes his ambition to recreate the ambitious program that composer Alexander Scriabin presented in St. Petersburg, Russia on 2 April 1915, Thompson’s homage to the composer’s centennial (rec. 22-23 May 2015). Scriabin would perish just three weeks after he gave his recital; a pity, for he had peaked as a performer, and his imagination, busy comprehending his virtual “Universe,” likely had cosmic possibilities. A contemporary writer for Etude magazine, Ellen von Tiedehohl, reported that Scriabin’s eyes “blazed fire” during the concert. Scriabin claimed to have “lost himself” in the course of his Third Sonata, oblivious that he was seated in a concert hall surrounded by spectators. For this recording, Thompson performs on a 1927 Steinway, whose vintage and mellow tone approximate Scriabin’s instrument at his recital.
Pianist Thompson concedes that his being able to recreate a specific program the composer proffered “is a rare luxury,” which he hopes will stand as a “faithful representation of Scriabin’s final artistic vision.” Scriabin selected short pieces in each of two imagined halves, both concluding with a sonata. The small pieces he arranged effectively into short sets, creating a maximum degree of contrast, yet maintaining an exceptional sense of emotional continuity. Of particular interest is Scriabin s ordering of the Op.74 pieces, of which three of the five preludes proceed not in their printed order, but interrupted by the two Op.73 Danses. The second half of the program gives a vision of Scriabin’s mystical sensibility with nebulous, fleeting emotions and figurations in kaleidoscopic shades of color. Besides pieces chosen for nuance and sensibility, several works make extraordinary, bravura demands, such as the Valse Op.38, and the final movements of each sonata and the Etude. Even the critics hostile to the Scriabin ethos of his last years acknowledged the quality and power of Scriabin’s idiosyncratic performances.
Thompson’s first piece, the D-flat Major Prelude, Op. 35, No. 1 projects an erotic aggression, offset by the moody, groping, enigmatic character of the B-flat Major Prelude, Op. 35, No. 2. The Prelude in b-flat minor, Op. 37, No. 1 fuses aspects of Chopin with Russian melancholy. The Prelude in F-sharp Major, Op. 37, No. 2, pungent and percussive, makes its drama brief. More in the exotic, elastic melos of Scriabin sings the Prelude in B Major, Op. 37, No. 3, with its uneasy harmonic progressions, which contain something of the Debussy liquidity. The Op. 37 set concludes with a demonic Prelude in g minor, the No. 4, strident with a kind of “fate” motif. The G Major Prelude, Op. 39, No. 3 seems to take its cue from Chopin, but this miniature leaves us with more questions than it resolves.
The Mazurka in E Major, Op. 25, No. 4 hides its identity in mixed agogics, skittering in the manner of an askew waltz. The sensibility becomes both virtuosic and martial in spirit, then reverts into its broken-phrase waltz motion. The Etude in b-flat minor challenges the player much in the manner of Chopin’s set from Op. 25, especially when Thompson must play Presto. The 1903 Valse in A-flat offers a highly ornate, Lisztian opus that exploits layered, perfumed phrases and liquid runs and trills, any of which may explode into passionate declarations or moments of curled arioso. The 1898 Third Sonata in f-sharp minor, Op. 23 bears the rubric “States of the Soul.” Despite its poetic hyperbole, Drammatico, the first movement proceeds classically, with two themes, marked by a leaping bass figure, answered by a three-note, stepwise motion. Scriabin develops and compresses his materials as the music thunders or muses, alternately. The ensuing Allegretto, here under Thompson, assumes the character of an intermezzo in martial figures, perhaps indebted to Schumann. The Andante paints a tender love-scene, even asking for chromatic melancholy to be played Dolorosa. Scriabin intends for his Presto con fuoco finale to express the plunging of the soul “into the abyss of non-being.” But this Ride to the Abyss—shades of Berlioz—will not occur without a ferocious struggle of Manichean forces, light and dark. Several times, a consolatory second subject tries to break the grip of fate, as does a reminiscence of the Andante, but the subjective “Horsemen of the Apocalypse” overwhelm us by the sheer, manic dint of their intensity.
The “second half” of the recital explores the progressive, exploratory syntax Scriabin evolved after 1908, based on his own scales of the fourth. The Nuances, Op. 56, No. 3 proceed as a melancholy improvisation, without overtly mystical or diabolical assertions. The Danse languide (1906) immediately pursues a new direction, in choppy, groping sequences that bespeak a ghostly aura. The Op. 74 Preludes (1914) constitute the composer’s last-completed compositions. Scriabin exploits 10-note scales, committed to the dictum that “my melody is a decomposed harmony, and my melody is condensed harmony.” Scriabin employs two such scales, and their elision of semitones creates an uneasy atmosphere—marked “Lent, Vague, indecis”—in the No. 4, with its wry allusion to Wagner. The No. 1 is marked 3/4 “Douloureux, dechirant,” in a thoroughly unorthodox application of D Major. No. 2 has no key signature, only 4/8, marked “Tres lent, contemplatif,” seventeen measures of emotional nebulousness. The so-called “Garlands,” Op. 73, No. 1 asks for “a gracious languor,” that produces a liquid sonority we might have heard had we attended a soiree hosted by Dorian Gray. The Steinway’s high registers shimmer with exotic life, perhaps bordering on the world of Pierre Louys. Flammes sombres, Op. 73, No. 2 proceeds Avec une grace dolente, hastening, or perhaps groping, in chromatics that cannot decide whether they pledge allegiance to Faure, Liszt, or demonized madness. From Deux Poemes, Op. 63 Thompson plays Etrangete, the No. 2. Marked “Gracious, delicate,” the piece sounds like Chinese chimes, maybe those of Bali. We want to envision a Gauguin scene, but the delicacy becomes manically over-ripe. The music’s smile belongs to the Mona Lisa.
Some commentators regard the post-Romantic Sonata No. 4, Op. 30 (1903) as Scriabin’s most perfect creation in the form. In two movements, the sonata is the briefest of Scriabin’s larger works, and the opening movement, Andante, remains entirely monothematic. Attacca, the music flows into the Prestissimo volando, a designation for Scriabin’s new approach to ecstatic vision, here, a flight to a distant star that illuminates his own, creative ego. Thompson injects the required passion, frenzy, and digital velocity to finish the “original” recital with unabashed abandon.