SCRIABIN: The Complete Etudes = Etude in C-sharp Minor, Op. 2, No. 1; 12 Etudes, Op. 8; Eight Etudes, OP. 42; Etude, OP. 49, No. 1; Etude, Op. 56, No. 4; 3 Etudes, Op. 65 – Garrick Ohlsson, piano – Bridge

by | Aug 12, 2009 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

SCRIABIN: The Complete Etudes = Etude in C-sharp Minor, Op. 2, No. 1; 12 Etudes, Op. 8; Eight Etudes, OP. 42; Etude, OP. 49, No. 1; Etude, Op. 56, No. 4; 3 Etudes, Op. 65 – Garrick Ohlsson, piano – Bridge 9287, 59:07 [Distrib. by Albany] ****:

San Francisco pianist Garrick Ohlsson prepared us for this CD by offering a lecture-concert on Scriabin as part of the San Francisco Performances series at Herbst Theatre about a year ago. The disc itself, however, was recorded in September 2004. Like Scriabin, Ohlsson remains a firm Chopin acolyte, but he adheres to his antipathy, curiously, for Schumann. Sporting a massive technique that reminds his auditors–given his sheer physique–of his mentor Claudio Arrau and also of Walter Gieseking, Ohlsson commands the huge tonal palette Scriabin demands as well as the requisite poetry that often assumes a mystical or solipsistic dimension.

Ohlsson opens with the youthful (1887) Etude in C-sharp Minor, which fuses in its plaint Chopin’s melodic distillation and Tchaikovsky’s somber hues, an affect recaptured in the Op. 8, No. 11 in B-flat Minor. Immediately, the affect shifts to bravura colors for Op. 8, heavily indebted to Chopin’s two sets of etudes. The C Major likes “butterfly,” syncopated triplets in both hands. Five notes in one hand and three in the other mark the knotty F-sharp Minor, rife with thick Wagnerian undercurrents. Cross rhythms define the next two, in B Minor and B Major; the former easily could pass for Rachmaninov. Cross rhythms in staccato thirds define No. 10 in D-flat Major, its moods mercurial and swirling in oils.

Morton Estrin recorded these Op. 8 Etudes (1894) for Connoisseur Society some years ago, and both pianists bring a liquid dimension to these pieces, with Ohlsson supplying a cooler eros. Several etudes ask for big octaves and huge stretches while simultaneously testing wrist flexibility, as in No. 5 in E, marked Brioso; No. 6 in A plays like an askew waltz in sixths. A midnight ride might motivate the B-flat Minor, No. 7, but it belongs less to Schubert than to Washington Irving. The A-flat might be one of Tchaikovsky’s songs without words, almost semplice in its candid sentiment. The G-sharp Minor has militant aspirations–like Liszt’s Funerailles–a ballade in bold colors and rushing impulses. It is no less a punishing toccata in sweeping lines, dying out only at the end, its vehemence having been exhausted. The D-sharp Minor, a Horowitz staple, drips with erotic tempests, each amorous gesture more rife with Tristan conflagration than its predecessor.

By the time Scriabin composed his set of eight Etudes, Op. 42 (1903), brevity had become the soul of mystical wit. Tonal but urging all sorts of focal evaporation, the complex rhythmic drive that distorts the melody its raison d’etre. The impulse to compression overwhelms us, more for what might have been said than for the disturbing elements Scriabin leaves us. Perhaps the skazki of Medtner had made their presence felt, as in No. 7 in F Minor. The No. 3 in F-sharp Major might work at director Tim Burton’s funeral. The No. 4 in the same F-sharp Major pays homage to tender Liszt. The C-sharp Minor proves the emotional colossus of the set, Scriabin’s ravishing keyboard analog to Mahler’s 5th Symphony. Curiously, the No. 6 in D-flat Major, marked Esaltato, is the opus that wants to rival The Poem of Ecstasy, its agitation close to the Fifth Sonata. The last, in E-flat Major, almost seems glibly virtuosic, its filigree a bit reminiscent of Chopin’s B Minor Sonata.

The two brief etudes from Op. 49 and Op. 56 are new to me: the first (1905) uses a tritone bass under a weirdly galloping rhythm; the 1907 ushers in a dustdevil or minor whirlpool for 30 seconds, a series of agitated triplets. At last, we reach the set of Op. 65 (1911-1912), which absorbs the composer’s penchant for chords based on the fourth degree, clangor, and a free trill that can rhapsodize in the aether. The relatively extended wraithlike No. 1 of the set calls for mystic scales, huge stretches in pianissimo, minor ninths. No.  2 anticipates some of Messiaen’s bird calls and broken flutterings: a major seventh harmony still manages an askew lullaby. The last moves in fifths and octaves, quite thick in its textures, declamatory and self-righteous. The imperious tone only increases, ever more manic, until fit to bursting its ubiquitous message: “I am!”

–Gary Lemco

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