Vers la Flamme = SCRIABIN Vers la flamme – Poème, op. 72; R. STRAUSS Tod und Verklärung, Op. 24 (arr. Eckardstein); MESSAIEN Regard de l’Eglise d’amour from Vingt regards sur l’Enfant-Jesus. ECKARDSTEIN Improvisation; BEETHOVEN Piano Sonata No. 32 in C Minor, Op. 111 – Severin von Eckardstein, piano – CAvie-music 8553531(10/6/23) (76:08) [Distr. Warner] *****:
While the rubric for this album derives from the late Scriabin poem Vers la flamme (1914), the program means to establish a musical eschatology, culminating in Beethoven’s final piano sonata, “a journey from the terrestrial domain to the light, with an underlying question concerning what connects life and death.” In another sense, the program first de-constructs the universe with Scriabin’s apocalyptic vision, wherein the “ocean of fire” engulfs and remakes all of creation in an unbroken, ascending musical line. Messiaen’s last section of his massive, Christian cycle of perspectives on the Cross, glorifies the ineffable power of God. Prior to such a transcendent encounter, we have the death-throes and meditations, via Richard Strauss, of a dying individual, whose psyche must succumb to the inexorable demands of his physical being. Eckardstein interjects his own Improvisation (2018) as a transition to Beethoven’s 1822 last sonata, which can be said to reconstruct tonal fragments and diverse, emotional impulses into an architectural unity.
The inaugural piece, Vers la flamme, benefits from Eckardstein’s haunted realization of Scriabin’s anxious half steps downward, the Bechstein instrument’s providing a luminescence to the tremolos and exotic harmonies. Scriabin’s penchant for the key of F# seems to have been derived from Liszt, who employs it in literary moments of transcendence from Dante and Goethe. The music rather throbs in its struggle to achieve freedom, akin to the pictorial work of J.W.N. Turner as it increasingly sought illumination. Vladimir Horowitz claimed that Scriabin had experienced a psychotic vision of the end of the world, consumed in fire. The last chords leave us suspended in a bottomless void, awaiting something born of fear or faith.
The 1889 tone-poem Tod und Verklärung has its inspiration from a poem by Alexander Ritter (1833 – 1896) depicting the death of an artist. In four distinct sections, the music recounts the dying man’s protracted struggle with mortality, his thoughts of his past, and his dying and passing into another realm of existence. For Strauss, the moment of transfiguration will embrace C major. The sheer mass of the orchestral scoring requires Eckardstein to employ heavy pedal effects to maintain the sonic texture that piano can only approximate. We hear in the passing harmonies and agogics allusions to Wagner’s Tristan, rather the outcome of this fusion of love and death. At other moments, reminiscences of the Liszt Sonata in b seem to lie on the horizon. The throes of convulsive agony prove technically brilliant in Eckardstein’s rendition; chromatic and polyphonic, they call forth the power of his keyboard. Do the translucent chords temporary respite and of heavenly peace resound with passing figures from Wagner’s Parsifal? The massive stretti Eckardstein manages to imitate the orchestra’s glistening harp parts in the upper register. The last six minutes of this transcription depict the slow release of the mortal coil and the soul’s acceptance of the final mystery.
If Strauss comes to God via experience, Olivier Messaien reaches for God from the perspective of ecstatic innocence, regarding the infant Jesus through 20 prisms of majesty, violence, awe, and bliss. Messaien dismisses traditional metrics and key signatures, opting for “additive” rhythms in diverse chains of altered note lengths in dense, chromatic textures. The final “regard” contemplates the Church of Love, a sometimes stentorian, sometimes dizzying juxtaposition of clarion energies, but always a colossal declaration of faith. The exotic nature of Messaien’s chorale structures, also in F#, most likely have their best equivalent in Antoni Gaudi’s pantheistic irreverence and sublime worship in the idiosyncratic design of his Sagrada Família in Barcelona. The recording (April 2022) of Eckardstein’s Bechstein instrument enjoys a richly sculpted resonance here, captured by Recording Producer and Editor, Philipp Nedel.
Eckardstein plays his own 1978 Improvisation, a three-minute piece of diverse textures in the eclectic style of post-serialism combined with salon jazz and romantic, chorale motifs. It provides a suspended cadence that leads, intentionally, into the opening two chords and trill of Beethoven’s immense Sonata No. 32 in c. His own commentary on this extraordinary opus best provides a musical and personal context: “Beethoven’s Op. 111 appears in a new light in each phase of our lives.” While Eckardstein credits Andor Foldes as an influence in this extraordinary work, I find his phasing and dramatic sense of emerging architecture closely resonant with Clara Haskil’s various recorded versions. The ease of transition from the Maestoso’s resolve to the glistening fury of the Allegro con brio ed appassionata imposes a startling grip on our emotions, quite compelling.
Like Haskil, and for that matter, Foldes and Michelangeli, Eckardstein’s studied approach to the massively intricate Arietta allows its beauty and its contradictions to emerge in lyrical expression, Beethoven’s ability to present a kernel or atom of musical impulse, pulverize it further and then explode it for its kinetic power. At moments, the musical tissue reduces to mere pulsation or plainchant without relinquishing its expressive potency. At other moments, the texture becomes a music box or contrapuntal, Aeolian harp, the extremes constantly moving in an effort to converge. As an exercise in “interconnectedness,” this survey has proven eminently successful.